Even in Malta, the fight against mass tourism starts gathering steam

Network of activists from Malta and southern European cities in effort to curb over-tourism and protect natural resources

Fight against mass tourism gathers steam
Fight against mass tourism gathers steam

A new southern European network has been formed to challenge mass-tourism across a number of countries, and combat the negative effects of large influxes of visitors.

The network, SET – the Southern European front against Touristification – was founded in April this year, and includes representatives from Malta and various Italian, Spanish and Portuguese cities.

All the network’s founding “cities” – Venice, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, Palma, Pamplona, Lisbon, Malta, Malaga, Madrid, Girona, Donostia, the Canary Islands and the Camp de Terragona – have in the past decade had their popularity further boosted through cheap flights offered by low cost airlines.

A representative of SET in Malta, architect Tara Cassar, told this newspaper that the network did not intend to make tourism seem like a negative thing, but wanted to put in place a structured way of restraining the problems mass-tourism is bringing, and, locally, to protected the island’s resources.

“Cities across Europe, such as Barcelona and Venice are sadly a testament to the downfall of mass-tourism, exemplifying its crass effect on public life. This can also be seen happening locally through increased rent in part due to more homes being let-out for short stays, overburdened public transport, over-consumption of depleting resources, particularly water, and deluge of waste, just to mention a few,” Cassar said.

“We are not suggesting that one labels tourism as the problem. Rather, we are working for structured restraints to curb the impacts of mass-tourism and protect our islands’ limited resources, whilst we’re still in time,” she said.

Cassar added that while Malta’s involvement in the network had just started, it intended to take the issue forward in more depth soon.

SET’s founding manifesto mentions housing and rent problems experienced by locals, caused by real estate agencies who buy property to allocate them to the tourist market, as the most important common problem its cities are facing.

Rising prices, and poor working conditions and black market employment in touristic sectors, such as hotels and restaurants, are other
issues the network says its cities face.

High rates of pollution due to the massive use of resources by tourist and the excessive use and constant expansion of infrastructure which ruin and exploit the natural and architectural environment for tourism’s sake, are other negatives which touristification brings to the cities, SET’s manifesto says.

Too much of a good thing

While European economies have traditionally welcomed the income boost generated by tourists, many cities around the continent are now finding that too much tourism is becoming a big problem.

Barcelona – a city swarming with tourists – has in the past few years started feeling the pressure on the housing market caused by AirBnB, which has made property unaffordable for residents. AirBnB makes it easy for property owners to rent out their houses or flats to tourists, at rates often undercutting traditional hotel rooms.

A good portion of tourist apartments in the city are illegal, but authorities have now started fight back, clamping down on illegal holiday lets, and imposing hefty fines and prosecuting landlords who do not play by the rules.

Earlier this year, Palma became the first Spanish city to ban private holiday rentals altogether, in an attempt to halt mass tourism and make the city more habitable for its residents.

Venice, another city flooded with holidaymakers, has now restricted access to cruise ships, banning larger vessels from its centre, due to the mass congestion they were causing to its canals.

In Malta, too, tourism has reached record heights, with inbound trips in 2017 having risen almost 16% over the previous year.

There is now concern, however, on the sustainability of such an economic model, with the country facing ever increasing rent prices, constant construction in the island’s most popular localities, and seemingly never-ending traffic jams and queues.

“We’re not suggesting that one labels tourism as the problem but we are working for structured restraints to curb the impacts of mass-tourism whilst we’re still in time”

A more meaningful form of tourism

It is for this reason that SET’s cities have banded together to push for a higher quality of tourism, championing the idea that in the face of touristification, a territorial networked response offering alternative proposals, and individual and collaborative actions, is essential to solve the problem.

The network underscores the difference between a “traveller” and a “tourist”. Travellers don’t just visit a country, they want to feel at home, live like the locals do, and engage in authentic experiences – they bring with them a form of tourism focused on quality, not quantity.

If citizens are forced out of their cities – something which has happened locally in places like Sliema, which now have a high percentage of foreign residents – then visitors to such places are not really “travellers” but merely tourists walking between crowds of other non-travellers, waiting in queues and visiting shops the likes of which are found all over the world, SET’s rationale posits.

In light of the problems mass tourism brings, SET says locals have started to organise themselves and defend their right to inhabit their cities, starting by drawing people’s attention to the issues.

The current tourism model needs to be openly criticised, with its consequences denounced, SET maintains.

One way of doing so is by discussions on limiting the tourism industry, an idea which was recently mentioned by the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, which called for a carrying capacity study for the island’s tourist sector.

Through this international network of cities in the same situation, SET hopes to create a powerful voice against over-tourism, with its manifesto being the first step to achieve this.

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