‘Cheap and cheerful’ tourism no longer viable, MHRA boss says

Who are the upmarket tourists being dreamed about in Corinthia’s six-star hotel project?

“If someone is paying good money for an experience or service then they’re understandably going to have high expectations”
“If someone is paying good money for an experience or service then they’re understandably going to have high expectations”

Malta can choose to remain “cheap and cheerful” and above all, crowded, or it can make the leap towards a more high-quality product, according Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association president Tony Zahra.

“We’re a country of 300 sq.km. To get the most out of it we can either bring in more people at the same rates or charge more and keep the same numbers,” he told MaltaToday.

“We’re talking about the island going up-market. We’re talking about adopting the Swiss model rather than the Dubai model.”

Zahra said that like Switzerland, Malta needed to offer the best possible product. “People with money go to Switzerland. Why can’t we be the Switzerland of the Mediterranean?”

Rather than discuss labels or the number of stars a hotel has, Zahra stressed that Malta needed to improve the quality of its product across the board.

“You can’t have quality in one corner of Malta and then find that the rest isn’t up to standard,” he said. “We should be talking about quality in everything we do.”

The reality, he said, was that with an unlimited budget, people could choose to go anywhere, and this means “competing with the best” to attract them.

Speak only when you’re spoken to

As the sector has developed, Malta has diversified the type of guest it welcomes, and is increasingly tapping into niche markets, including the luxury market.

Nick Grech, the owner of Nick’s Executive Chauffeur Services, said that offering a service to the very wealthy required a different set of skills.
In his experience, high-end tourists tended to prefer more discreet service.

“You get drivers who will tell you their life story in the time it takes to get from the airport to the hotel. That isn’t what these people are after.”
Grech, whose company works with specialised and corporate tour operators, also said the market had grown, mainly in the last four years.
“Groups tend to be small, maybe a couple and a tour guide. They’ll go to the same places, but everything will be planned before down to the finest detail – specific branded water in the car, hand towels, everything,” he said.

He also stressed the need for attention to detail and meeting expectations. “We have had occasions where one of our drivers has waited three hours in a queue to buy tickets for them [high-end tourists]. Whatever is necessary.”

Driving the affluent around inevitably means getting an understanding of whether Malta’s attractions are up to their standard and Grech said he believed there weren’t yet enough places that were.

“We have a few good restaurants, but these people afford to have Michelin star chefs working for them full-time so it’s very difficult to impress them.”

Five-star only in name

Glorianne Mizzi, a director at VIP Tourist Malta, said she feels the rise of luxury tourism has been triggered by the fact that Malta is less reliant of package holidays with people choosing to come to Malta to explore and discover what it has to offer. Indeed, over the last ten years “independent” tourists have increased from 45.1% to 64.7%.

Mizzi said improvements to the country’s cultural heritage sites as well as the rise of boutique hotels and higher-quality restaurants, especially in Valletta, have given the country more to offer – but the market still faces challenges.

“We can sell ourselves as a 5-star destination, but in reality, we aren’t at 5-star level,” she said, pointing out as an example that Malta’s hotels were of an inferior quality to those of a comparable level abroad.

One issue that stands out is training staff to the standard required by the luxury market.

“If someone is paying good money for an experience or service then they’re understandably going to have high expectations,” she said, insisting that staff needed to always go the extra mile to ensure client satisfaction.  

She said that guests that pay for a high-end product are just as interested in exploring what Malta has to offer and that as such the country needed to offer the necessary services, from transport to private tours and activities.

Asked whether the market’s growth could make the country relatively unaffordable for more traditional types of tourist, Mizzi said it could be the case, and stressed the need for a balance to be struck between the two.

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