The Malta Independent 15 June 2024, Saturday
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Malta has exceeded its tourist carrying capacity, economist says

Sunday, 19 May 2024, 09:00 Last update: about 27 days ago

Alice Milne

Malta has exceeded its carrying capacity in terms of tourism arrivals, and the problems associated with large numbers of tourists are exacerbated by disorganised infrastructure and weak traffic management, economist Prof. Lino Briguglio told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

Malta has one of the highest, word-wide, tourism per capita of the host population and per square kilometre of the host country. Malta is in 6th place globally in this regard.

In pre-Covid pandemic days, Malta was getting closer to welcoming three million tourists per year. Now that tourism has picked up the same rhythm, this target is within reach again. The latest available statistics, for the first three months of this year, show an increase of 31 per cent in 2024 when compared to the same quarter last year.

The question that arises is whether Malta has reached a saturation point in terms of numbers.

Briguglio explains the situation with an anecdote. He gives the example of three cruise ships (A, B & C), each with their own carrying capacity. Ship A remains within its limits and has satisfied passengers, while the passengers on ship B are experiencing a well-organised but over-capacity voyage – leading to many dissatisfied passengers. Meanwhile, ship C is in complete disarray with being well over-capacity, not being managed at all resulting in total dissatisfaction of the passengers with their experience (mainly but not only, because of congestion).

Briguglio goes on to say that Malta is currently like ship C – disorganised, unmanaged, and over-crowded. “Even the cruise ship B example would be an improvement. This would still be an over-carrying-capacity situation, but at least, in this case, there would be an attempt to cope with it. Ideally Malta should aim to be in the Cruise ship A situation.”

He adds that our over-congestion is seemingly worsened by weak traffic management and disorganised infrastructure, and that these ‘coping’ mechanisms can be taken as the need to better our transport networks, drainage systems, queuing management and pollution control – while also adding that it shouldn’t be practically run by “greedy businessmen aided and abetted by those in power”.

With other European cities facing a wave of “anti-tourism” movements after increased tourism and gentrification, can we expect the same sentiment to reach Malta?

“Anti-tourism” is prominently appearing in Spain. Barcelona locals are referring with distaste to their home city as ‘Carcelona’, deriving from the Spanish word for prison, due to the 32 million tourists entering, littering and hiking the cost of living. Over in Tenerife, locals are struggling with a drought emergency while still having to cater to their 5.6 million yearly tourists, whereas those in Málaga are resisting tourism through graffiti, stickers, and posters all with strong Anti-Tourist attitudes.

Spain continues to accept tourists with barely any limits, aside from recently raising their tourist tax, while over in Venice an entry fee has been imposed for tourists. Recently, Japan has introduced “no-tourist” streets to avoid the harassment of local geisha and blocked off an infamous view of Mount Fuji to avoid visitors congregating in a residential area and disturbing the peace. As of November 2023, Amsterdam voted to close off their ports to cruise liners and continue to campaign against notoriously rowdy British tourists from exhibiting anti-social behaviour.

Similarly to Spain, Malta is lacking in tourist regulations. Certainly, it can be said that tourism is a valuable asset to our growing GDP, with Prof. Briguglio noting that “a capping of tourism inflows would affect businesses and have a negative effect on the economy”. Adding on that tourism is not the only contributor to the economy, Malta is able to adapt to other income revenues to placate the losses introduced by a reduction of our usual tourist numbers, mentioning cigarette tax as an example.

A study conducted in 2019 by Prof. Briguglio alongside Prof. Marie Avellino indicated that a majority of respondents did not wish for an increase in tourist inflows. The areas with the highest of such responses came from St Julian’s, Sliema, and St Paul’s Bay. As many residents of these areas will know, they are experiencing overcrowding, congestion, badly behaved tourists, and public spaces occupied by local businesses. They will argue that we need appropriate legislation and enforcement to be able to avoid or, at the very least, reduce these consequences.

Splitting potential legislations into three parts, Prof. Briguglio explains what other countries have done to address the situation. Firstly, they educated incoming tourists to respect the host-country and community. Secondly, they imposed a tax aimed at limiting tourist visitation – especially in sensitive areas. Lastly, he stated that some countries imposed a cap on inbound tourist numbers accompanied by a moratorium on the construction of new hotels. “Control would also be needed on non-hotel tourist residences,” he said.

An example of an educational campaign can be taken from France, which has enlisted social-media influencers to share the negative impacts of over-tourism and spread the word about responsible tourism.

A prime illustration of control of non-hotel residents appears in Madeira, a Portuguese island located off the West African coast. Madeiran short-let property owners must register and obtain an ‘Alojamento Local’ licence, which is only given to properties in designated ‘tourist-zones’. They must also register their guests with the local authorities, and are submitted to the responsibility of ensuring their environmental and social impact remains at a minimum.

When asked if “we as the people” can do anything to work towards this, Prof. Briguglio admitted that local councils are unlikely to take effective stands against over-tourism, and that he does not expect the general public to engage in widespread protests. He instead shifts the focus to NGOs and academics, calling their reports and actions “major weapons”.

As seen with NGOs such as Moviment Grafitti, actions have already begun taking place against over-tourism as seen in protests, for example, against the taking over of beaches in Comino by businessmen. Currently, they are working alongside FAA and various resident organisations on an ongoing campaign (‘Il-Bankini taċ-ċittadini’, translating to ‘the sidewalks belong to the citizens’) which is pushing back against businesses taking over public spaces. Many will remember last year’s ‘Xebbajtuna’ (‘we are fed up’) protest, that took over Valletta in an attempt to express frustration at those involved in Malta’s environmental and social degradation.

In the meantime, however, Prof. Briguglio says the inflow of tourism is not an indicator of success.

Prof. Briguglio adds that if the government truly values sustainable tourism, it should also give due importance to the social and environmental pillars of tourism, instead of just giving “lip service paid to sustainable tourism”.

“Currently these pillars are by and large disregarded by the authorities. We read a lot good intensions in the colourful tourism strategy documents, but in practice these are nothing but hollow words and tokenism,” he said.

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