Tourism is not just about numbers

It would be futile to deny that tourism has made an invaluable contribution to Malta’s entire socio-economic progress since Independence, if not a decade earlier.

The sector has clearly played a pivotal role in all Maltese governments’ economic strategies; and while its centrality may have diminished with the rise of ‘new’ industries in IT and financial services, there can be no doubt that Malta’s economic health still relies, to a degree, on tourism.

This is not merely because of the sheer amount of private businesses involved, or the employment or profits they generate; it is partly because Malta’s tourism product is also ours: the sun, the sea, the beaches, the temples, the lot.  We share our bars, restaurants and streets with those tourists, and have done so for decades. And increasingly – partly as a result of rising immigration, but also due to changes to the traditional perceptions of ‘work’ – we often find ourselves playing the part of ‘tourists’ in our own country: served by a wide variety of nationalities in local restaurants, etc..

What might have been a novelty in the 1950s, is now not only an accepted reality, but part of our very fabric as a nation. This adds to the value of the tourism product… but also exposes the risk of our (real or perceived) dependence on this one, vast sector.

It explains why – as in most other areas – the industry has consistently been in the political and media spotlight over the past decades. Inevitably becoming a battle-field for politics, governments’ tourism efforts are increasingly judged only in terms of numbers… number of arrivals per year, number of days, weeks spent, number of Air Malta routes servicing tourist ‘home’ countries, etc.

Among other things, this was the conclusion of a recent academic study by economist Lino Briguglio and Marie Avellino, director of the University’s Institute for Tourism, Travel and Culture: which suggests that these numbers may also be harming the industry’s long-term success chances.

The authors conclude that although the ‘sustainability’ buzzword adorns policy documents approved under different administrations, in practice sustainability meant that “the industry was generally measured in terms of tourist numbers by the tourism authorities”. This means that dependence of mass tourism continued “unabated, and very little, if at all, was done to reverse this trend”.

Matters now seem to have reached a point when the biggest threat to Malta’s tourism product is, in fact, ‘over-tourism’. It is a view separately echoed by the industry’s own concerns. According to Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association president Tony Zahra, “The number of tourists visiting Malta [is] already greater than what the country could sustainably take,” and that more beds would result in “bad times” for Malta. 

“If this country keeps progressing in this manner, it is no longer going to be sustainable. We can’t keep bringing more people. We already have a lot, so what we need to do is to bring the number of people we are getting but ensure that they spend more, otherwise we are going to end up in bad times,” Zahra insisted.

“We can’t keep increasing the number of beds we have. If we do this there is going to be a blood-bath.”

Nonetheless, it is a contentious issue to confront. The bulk of the Opposition’s criticism is that Malta should be investing in lower numbers of higher-spending tourists. This claim is backed up by the results of an on-line survey of 400 respondents, where a majority think Malta should aim for better quality tourists and tourist volumes should decrease.

But while the long-term goal is commendable, the reality is that our tourism infrastructure has been geared in the opposite direction for so long now – with results that were, until fairly recently, only ever measured in quantity, as opposed to quality – that we must question whether our product is really of a standard high enough to attract that calibre of tourist in the first place.

One must also bear in mind that a radical shake-up of policy today – such as the phasing out of entire categories of hotel – could cost thousands of jobs across the board, at the stroke of a pen.

Instead, the authors of the study propose a tourism policy based on the democratisation in tourism development, involving the active participation of residents and local communities.