Full up, fed up... of tourism?

It is open season for unabashed construction wealth and paying tourists, while a silent war is waged against the dispossessed who suffer the consequences of street brawl in Hamrun that went viral

This week, the Deloitte-MHRA report gave the Maltese a snapshot of the availability of hotel-accommodation, should all the approved or pending applications for new hotels come on board. As MHRA boss Tony Zahra explains, assuming that all the pending applications will be approved, Malta would have doubled the number of rooms it had in 2019, when the island clocked just over 80% occupancy of the rooms available at the time. In short, the full complement of tourists these hotels can accommodate is close to 5 million tourists.

It is a brutal scenario to consider. Only this week, the home affairs minister was sending ‘cleansing department’ officers to clear out illegal structures inside the geographic areas of Marsa and Hamrun, in tandem with a police action to remove overstayers – namely asylum seekers from Italy – in a show of force against ‘illegal’ non-EU nationals from Africa. Yet, Malta’s planning authority is given carte blanche, thanks to Labour’s expansionist planning policies, to add more storeys to high-rise hotels, and add brand new hotels to the mix for millions of tourists.

It is open season for unabashed construction wealth and paying tourists, while a silent war is waged against the dispossessed who suffer the consequences of street brawl in Hamrun that went viral (the home affairs minister seems unable to consider better policing on our streets as a solution to anti-social behaviour...).

But back to the Deloitte report, for the report identified the real pitfalls of this formula of unfettered economic growth ‘at all costs’: overdevelopment; the overcrowding of sensitive sites, the impact on utilities such as energy-provision, and sewage.

Malta cannot cope with today’s tourism figures – still less with the 4.7 million it would need to cater for the insatiable thirst of the hotel and construction industry seeking planning permits.

The MHRA says this report is mapping out a clear picture of the future for Malta. It is time that the government takes heed – to take the political decisions it feels it has to take.

But does the government have the necessary courage to redefine its formula for growth? In 2019, Moviment Graffitti’s successful national protest against “excessive and haphazard construction” – under the rallying cry, ‘Iż-żejjed kollu żejjed’ (‘Enough is enough’) – was already a reminder that economic growth cannot take precedence over people’s right to live in safety; and that it cannot ride roughshod over people’s genuine concerns abut their environment, their health and their quality of life.

We already knew that even government’s own consultants have warned that widening roads will only result in more traffic congestion further down the line. Yet government persists regardless: raising legitimate questions on why it disregards its own commissioned advice, to favour one particular industry above all else.

And the similar pattern appears in other areas: the rate at which the Planning Authority approves new projects, or turns a blind eye at existing planning breaches, strongly suggests that the motives are always entirely economic than environmental. 

Limiting growth is not a defeatist position, but a radical choice to attain sustainability. Indeed the Deloitte report does delve into the possibility that the population, in Malta, will reach a point where numbers may start negatively affecting the attitudes of residents towards tourists, similar to what has happened in Barcelona or Venice.

Indeed, there are no doubts that this has started to happen in Malta already. Take Sliema, where a transient population of foreign workers and tourists and short-let stayers, treat the town as a personal rubbish bin; where the lack of policing on the beat means that people with no ties to the community are found committing acts of random vandalism; and where constant construction and soaring property prices are pricing out native-born residents from the town.

This is why unfeasible projects such as those of a tunnel from Malta to Gozo betrays a lack of consistency which even Labour ministers are aware of, yet they are unable to pronounce themselves against the tunnel project which they abhor.

It is clear that the addiction to real estate projects is so ingrained, that the government is unwilling to pull the plug. In reality there is no hope to save what is left of our Malta, if those in power remain enslaved to an economic model which depends on the multiplier effect of construction and the sale of apartments to rich foreigners, in this case, subsidized by the cheap availability of public land dished out by a compliant government.