The Malta Independent 27 May 2019, Monday

Is our tourism industry sustainable?

Sunday, 10 February 2019, 09:53 Last update: about 5 months ago

Martin Cauchi Inglott

Last Monday I had the opportunity to witness our Parliamentary Committee for Planning and the Environment discussing the Corinthia Group’s mega project proposal for St George’s Bay, upon request from Partit Demokratiku. I left with two troubling thoughts in mind:

1. The granting, or dare I say blatant robbery of public land that will benefit this prominent company, remains beyond belief; and

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2. Minister Konrad Mizzi’s Tourism’s strategy is the same one that we championed way back in the 1980s, i.e. the more the arrivals, the more beds and therefore the better off our tourism industry will be, which is also beyond comprehension.

It is an undeniable fact that tourism is one of our economic pillars, but this did not happen overnight. We started in the mid-1960s when the majority of tourists were British expats, servicemen and their families and friends. In the 1970s, the tourism economy actually replaced our military economy, re-employing thousands of locals who were originally engaged with the British Forces. Year upon year thereafter, tourism ministers boasted of increasing tourist arrivals, spurred on by tour operators who began packaging flights and hotels for the British market. Corinthia Group was, and remains part of Malta’s success story, even expanding its first class hospitality business worldwide, while employing thousands of Maltese workers in the process. Since 1992, all former Ministers of Tourism stated that Malta needs to target the up market tourist, and by the year 2000, Malta was receiving about 1 million tourists annually, (including a massive increase in students coming specifically here to learn English) whilst the 5 star hotels began flourishing.

We are today in 2019, and it appears that mass tourism remains the strategy in Malta as the island welcomed 2.6 million visitors last year, on a 300 square kilometre island, with a population of half a million using 300,000+ vehicles, compounded by massive construction everywhere! Now with all that going on, I really question whether the 6-star type tourists would want to come to Malta, unless of course, they wanted to remain in the confines of a 6-star hotel. But I think not, and, consequently, feel that our ambition should be to get our house in order prior to contemplating the very high-end tourist market.

A better destination is not achieved by building 6-star hotels only. Doing that might even kill the idea before it gets off the ground. Malta is an established mass-tourist destination, and we first need to change this label by improving amenities, services, infrastructure, and industry mentality and professionalism. Everything and everyone is part of Product Malta. The buses, the beaches, the public toilets, the man in the street, the shopkeeper, the hotel manager, the licensed guide, the museums, the churches, the dust and noise of construction, the traffic and driving.

We are already graced with being well established on the tourism map. Our advantage is that we are, at most, a three-hour flight away from anywhere in Europe, safe, and an English-speaking environment. Therefore, it is key that we preserve and improve the quality-of-life we have always cherished and offered for generations, while also ensuring that we do not endanger our unique selling points: culture and colourful history including world class prehistoric temples, baroque Valletta, quaint Gozo, natural Comino, serene village cores, and decent bathing waters, and overall holiday atmosphere in most parts of Malta.

Finally, we must ensure that Destination Malta remains sustainable. Do we really want more volume which will negatively impact local life, and the environmental footprint that mass tourism entails? Or should we strive for a sustained number of a mixture of visitors. Everybody wants a high-class holiday experience, be they English language students or millionaires. Nobody appreciates traffic congestion, fish farm slime, obstructed and broken pavements, clouds of demolition dust and constant head bursting jigger noise. Only last Monday, the Minister of Tourism acknowledged that living in Sliema is a headache...! Is it wise to give a headache to the rest of Malta while simultaneously trying to attract tourists?

The way I see it, Malta’s tourism sector has become a victim of its own success and it is high time we found a happy, sustainable medium, because the era of tranquillity, natural beauty and peaceful environment seem to be rapidly ebbing away and being replaced with general uglification. Malta must cap the number of hotel beds because it cannot afford to host any more tourists. In contrast, we should focus on improving the touristic product by offering incentives to raise standards in all areas, including hotels and service providers. We must focus on cleaning up our act, and enforcing existing laws consistently, thereby signalling that Malta values guests who choose our home as their holiday destination. We want departing guests to contemplate re-visiting Malta during their return flights, because Malta offers class, tradition, health, fun and relaxation. Let us not kill the goose which lays the golden egg, for Malta is too precious to sink into a quagmire of ugliness and stress where anything goes. After all, by improving Product Malta, we are ultimately also improving the way of life of the Maltese population.

The day will come when North Africa will again become a very viable destination, with plenty of room to grow, and we need to be ready to compete.

 

 

Martin Cauchi Inglott is the Secretary General of Partit Demokratiku and an MEP candidate

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