Malta feels the pain of its tourism boom: residents speak out

Are you feeling the strain of towns catering for tourists and foreign workers, and being unable to handle the effects of Malta’s population surge? We spoke to the people witnessing it first-hand

Feel the surge...
Feel the surge...

Recent events in Barcelona, Venice, San Sebastian and Berlin seem to alert us to a new interference with our quality of life that strikes right at the heart of our inept Maltese soft power. In the first three, “anti-tourism” protests are hitting out at the inflationary effect on property prices by abnormally high levels of tourism. Arran, the youth wing of the radical Popular Unity Candidacy in Germany, has slashed the tyres of rental bicycles and a tour bus as tensions rise over the impact that Airbnb, for example, has had on the local housing market.

And Malta is facing its own pressures as well.

St Julian’s mayor Guido Dalli said that the economic benefits of tourism on localities like his, Sliema, Bugibba or Marsascala were obvious, but that one could not deny the fact that the number of tourists was also having a negative impact.

These localities, he said, were the ones which suffered the most damage from tourism, as well as enjoying most of the benefits.

“St Julian’s is a village that never sleeps and that is an issue for the residents,” he said. “We also find that while the majority of tourists and foreigners are well-behaved, many tend to be loud, rude and disrespectful.”

Sliema mayor Tony Chircop. Photo: James Bianchi
Sliema mayor Tony Chircop. Photo: James Bianchi
I think we’re not promoting the character of our town enough. We’re lucky there is still a strong sense of community in Sliema, with its four parishes, and we need people to realise Sliema is not simply a holiday destination but a town with a proud history

Dalli said that many of the students that came to Malta to study English tended to be disruptive and that, in some cases, they resorted to acts of unwarranted vandalism, including urinating in the gardens or porches of private residences.

He said that the number of tourists and foreigners living and working in St Julian’s also put pressure on services like public transport. With five bus stops along the St Julian’s main promenade, he believes the locality is well-served by the many bus routes, although some people still expect not to have to wait for a bus.

“We find that many of the foreigners who live in our locality work in the iGaming industry, which has been a great economical boost to Malta,” Dalli said. “But they are also pushing rental prices up, way out of reach of the many Maltese who lived here.”

He said that Maltese workers on an average wage could no longer afford to rent a place in St Julian’s, let alone think of buying outright. Property owners, recognising in the foreigners a target market that could bring in more income, were raising prices to make them affordable only to foreigners, and some locals, on a high salary.

Environmentalist Claire Bonello
Environmentalist Claire Bonello
We are changing the character of the area and not just aesthetically. We are, in essence, losing the liveability of our towns

“Maltese tenants are being chased out of St Julian’s because they can no longer afford the standard of living that St Julian’s, knowingly or unknowingly, has brought unto itself.”

Sliema mayor Anthony Chircop said that a serious study on tourist capacity was needed to determine, locality by locality, how many tourists and seasonal foreign workers the country can accommodate without placing undue burden on its infrastructure and resources.

“Is our decision-making based on serious scientific studies?” he said. “No, it’s not. I think we are too lax and we are giving the green light to anything and everything, as long as it generates money and business.”

Sliema and St Julian’s tend to attract the most foreigners and tourists, reaching peak numbers in the summer months with the arrival of students attending language schools in Malta.

Chircop, himself with a background in the tourism industry, said that the majority of tourists do not stay in hotels while in Malta but find independent accommodation. This, he said, makes it impossible to monitor their stays in Malta.

Michela Spiteri, columnist and lawyer, Sliema resident
Michela Spiteri, columnist and lawyer, Sliema resident
The drunken student and visitor will be walking back to their hostel and apartments knowing they won’t be stopped because in a free-for-all resort there’s no such thing as enforcement

“As a council, we are responsible for keeping our locality clean,” he said. “Unfortunately, visitors on short stays are usually less inclined to feel part of the community and do not, therefore, abide by basic customs and regulations.”

Chircop said that there was indeed such a thing as too much tourism and that the number of foreigners and visitors in his locality were proving to be a burden on Sliema’s resources. The demand for water, for example, was resulting in a higher cost of delivery of the resource, as supply struggled to keep up with demand.

“There is definitely pressure on the transport system, with visitors taxing public transport,” he said. “But if that were not enough, we also see an exceedingly high use of private vehicles and other organised transport, many of which only transit through Sliema, but still make a big impact.”

Chircop said that a better enforcement system was needed if Sliema’s unique identity was to be safeguarded.

Guido Dalli, St Julian's mayor
Guido Dalli, St Julian's mayor
Many of the foreigners who live in our locality are also pushing rental prices up, way out of reach of the many Maltese who lived here

It was also important to distinguish between rowdy teen tourists and more mature tourists, he said. “Along the Sliema front, at any time of day you will see teens wearing only swimming trunks, bikinis or otherwise half-dressed, the kind of tourists and visitors without a shred of decency,” Chircop said.

He admitted that the council could – and should – do more, and was currently considering the possibility of commissioning some promotional material tailored for the locality.

“I think we are not promoting the character of our town enough,” he said. “We are lucky that there is still a very strong sense of community in Sliema, with its four parishes, and we need people to realise Sliema is not simply a holiday destination but a town with a proud history.”

Claire Bonello, legal counsel for Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar, believes it is evident that a quick look around Sliema and St Julian’s would quickly highlight the damaging effect that over-tourism was having on the localities.

On any given day, one will come across discarded garbage on many streets, general uncleanliness and a strain on services like public transport and the amenities in the areas, she said.

“Many of the foreigners and tourists are staying in apartments, AirBnB lodgings and guesthouses and they are the ones that leave the garbage on the roadside at all times, everyday,” she said.

The tourists, especially, were in Malta to entertain themselves and most could not be bothered to adhere to basic local regulations.

“We are changing the character of the area and not just aesthetically,” Bonello said. “We are, in essence, losing the liveability of our towns.”

She believes the Planning Authority’s decision to allow all pubs and restaurants to extend their seating area onto the pavements and roads was making the issue worse.

“Visitors to Malta are now entertaining themselves on the streets instead of restricting themselves to inside the venues,” she said. “The effect can be seen in the amount of garbage on our roads, as well as the noise that is generated.”

Bonello said that she, and FAA, had long been demanding a study to determine the tourist-carrying capacity for every locality in Malta, especially those hardest hit by the influx of tourists and foreigners.

Unfortunately, she said, the government does not want to do anything to tackle the numerous problems, and is content with leaving things as they stand, as long as they generate money.

“All they care about is the trickle-down effect on commerce and business,” she said.

The Times columnist Michela Spiteri said that some of the biggest challenges currently facing Malta are most visible in Sliema, St Julian’s, St Paul’s Bay and Bugibba. What these localities have in common is tourism. So, does that mean that tourists are therefore the problem?

Spiteri believes using tourism as a scapegoat is myopic and misguided – and in all likelihood quite unfounded.

“Tourists tend either to mimic their surroundings or be attracted to them, like for like,” she said. “If litter, noise, lack of enforcement and political will are our Achilles heel, then tourists are likely to copy us or take advantage of us.”

She said that if bins are overflowing or non-existent, tourists will simply leave their takeaway containers, their bottles and unconsumed food on the nearest pavement. And they will dispose of their cigarette butts on streets and beaches.

“If we ourselves disregard garbage collection times and show a casual contempt for the law, tourists will sense this,” she said. “Some will be put off and will never come again; others will be happy to join the ‘anything goes’ party and trash the joint.”

And then there’s construction. Spiteri said that apart from the environmental and planning issues, it bombards us with even more litter, noise, dust and inconvenience. Early each morning Sliema and St Julian’s wake up to construction and go to bed with a disco at the hotel next door or a rave party at the waterpolo club that’s just won the league.

“And to keep them company, the drunken student and visitor will be walking back to their hostel and apartments knowing they won’t be stopped because in a free-for-all resort there’s no such thing as enforcement.

“So parks are vandalised and no one is held to account. Unfortunately the law here in Malta simply doesn’t mean business,” Spiteri said. “What I want to see are more CCTV cameras and dustbins. I want to see more police patrols, and wardens – multi-tasking traffic wardens as well as dedicated ‘eco’ wardens – actually on the beat and fining people who flick their cigarette butts on the floor or who take garbage out at the wrong times. I also want to see the promenades swept clean and then power washed.”

Spiteri said that only when we Maltese start respecting our island, will others respect it too. And we could then attract more sophisticated and better behaved tourists in larger numbers.

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