Maltese showing signs of unease at overtourism

An academic study concluded that although the sustainability buzzword adorns policy documents approved under different administrations, in practice, sustainability “was often only lip service... the success of the industry was generally measured in terms of tourist numbers by the tourism authorities”

A situation where a majority would like tourist numbers to decrease, has set in
A situation where a majority would like tourist numbers to decrease, has set in

Malta is entering a new phase in its attitudes towards tourism with an increasing number of people expressing unease at tourist numbers which have shot up from 1.3 million to 2.6 million over the past decade.

The academic study written by economist Lino Briguglio and Marie Avellino, director of the University’s Institute for Tourism, Travel and Culture suggests that “overtourism”, defined as a situation where a majority would like tourist numbers to decrease, has “set in.”

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.

In response to the statement “I wish to see more tourists in the town/village where I reside” only 18% of the respondents agreed that they wished to see more tourists in their town or village, while 51% of the respondents disagreed. The remaining 31% were undecided.

Not surprisingly, respondents who live in high-tourist-density localities were less likely to desire more tourists in their communities than the average. This was also the case of respondents aged 60 years or older. Conversely, respondents who work directly in tourism-related jobs were more likely to view increased tourist numbers positively.

In response to the statement “I think that too many tourists create social discomfort in the town/village where I reside”, 44% agreed, while 39% disagreed. The remaining 17% were undecided.

As expected, respondents living in high-tourist-density locations expressed a higher degree of agreement than their counterparts in associating tourism with social discomfort.

In response to the statement “I think that too many tourists degrade the physical environment of the town/village where I reside”, 46% agreed, while 38% disagreed. The remaining 16% were undecided.

In response to the statement “I wish to see more hotels built, and restaurants and other shops opened in the town/village where I reside to cater for tourists.” only 16.5% agreed, while 75.5% disagreed and 8% were undecided.

Respondents were also asked to state the main advantages and disadvantages of tourism. The major benefits were economic, including income and employment generation (69%), followed by socio-cultural benefits, including intercultural exchanges (23%).

The main downside of tourism identified by the respondents was environmental degradation, including generation of waste and excessive construction activity. This was mentioned by 44% of respondents. This was followed by overcrowding, traffic congestion and noise (33.3%) and loss of cultural identity and socio-cultural clashes, including bad behaviour by tourists (15.1%). Price increases, including rent, partly due to demand by tourists was mentioned by 5% of respondents.

The survey was conducted in early 2019 by means of a questionnaire, administered on line, using the Qualtrics software. The survey was distributed through Facebook, using a number of popular Facebook Group sites in the Maltese Islands. The authors acknowledge that a major weakness of this survey was that the sample of respondents was not entirely representative of the Maltese residents in terms of gender, age, educational attainment and occupation. The results derived from the survey should therefore be interpreted with caution.

Business and political interests outweigh sustainability

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

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.

But they also warn that this will not be an easy policy to carry out, due to the conflicting interests and agendas involved in tourism. These include business interests, “often seeking short-term gains rather than social responsibility”, and politicians who “often try to gain political mileage by boasting about tourism numbers”. This results in “the ever-present tension between business and political interests as against societal, cultural and environmental costs”.

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