[WATCH] Further increase in tourists will spell bad times for Malta, MHRA president insists

Tony Zahra said Malta was already taking in more tourists than it could take, insisting that there needed to be clear vision on raising the standard of the product the country offers

MHRA president Tony Zahra
MHRA president Tony Zahra

The number of tourists visiting Malta was already greater that what the country could sustainably take and adding more beds would result in "bad times" for Malta, according to Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association president Tony Zahra.  

“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.”

He insisted that for every three tourists that come to Malta hotels needed an additional employee, many of whom were now being brought from countries outside the EU.    

“The experience of a tourist who comes to Malta today is not a Maltese experience,” he continued.

Zahra was speaking during current affairs programme Xtra, where he discussed tourism together with Malta Tourism Authority chairman Gavin Gulia.

The MHRA president highlighted the need for Malta to make a leap forward when it came to quality, insisting that this did not mean only having five-star hotels. “It can be two-star, but the best in the two-star category.”

He said that this was all the more relevant when considering that in recent years, Malta was seeing a trend developing where despite greater tourist numbers, the amount of money spent by each one was decreasing.

The only two localities in the country that were good enough for tourists to visit were Valletta and Mdina, Zahra said.

Gulia agreed that there was a need for a better-quality product, but also stressed the importance of people getting value for their money.

Using Turkey as an example, Gulia said that one could stay in a five-star hotel for an amount of money that was “ridiculously” low for Maltese standards. This, he said, was true of many countries outside of the EU.

MTA chairman Gavin Gulia
MTA chairman Gavin Gulia

“I don’t expect us to be as cheap as destinations that are outside the EU, the bottom line should be quality,” he said, adding that this didn’t mean that hotels should raise their prices too much.  

He pointed to efforts by the MTA lobbying “big culinary organisations” to come to Malta and certify restaurants as one way in which the authority was trying to improve the quality of the Maltese product.

Gulia also said that the MTA was no longer working with low cost tour operators, in a bid to incrementally raise the standard of tourists coming to Malta.

He pointed to the conference market, which he said didn’t leave as much money on the island as luxury tourism did, but it was more than most tourists were currently spending. Malta, he said, was working to exploit this market as much as possible, but said that there was also a need for better facilities before this could happen.

Turning to the need for better enforcement, specifically that related to private holiday accommodation, Gulia said that over the last two years a lot of work had been done to clamp down on unlicensed operators.

He said that while it wasn’t easy to locate every apartment being rented out to tourists, but said the MTA and the government were committed to clamping down on those abusing the system in order to ensure a level playing field for all.

‘MFSA to be revolutionised over the next three years’

The CEO of the Malta Financial Services Authority Joe Cuschieri was also interviewed on the programme and discussed authority’s vision for the next three years.

The vision was launched back in January, with a detailed strategic plan set to follow in the coming days, Cuschieri said.

The plan, he said, will include detailed measures to be taken, with Cuschieri pledging to have overseen the transformation of the authority by 2022.

Throughout the interview, Cuschieri emphasised the need for standards to be raised and for the authority’s employees to be trained in order to be able to meet the challenges brought about by modern-day realities.

Moreover, he said that a significant amount of investment was being made in technological platforms which could increase efficiency and allow for better collaboration with European counterparts.

Asked about the speed an manner with which the authority responds to cases in which a financial institution is in breach of the law, Cuschieri said that he wanted the authority to be quicker in its reaction.

He said that the culture so far was for a “watertight” case to be built before any action is taken. While it was easy to understand the need for a strong legal basis before any action is taken, Cuschieri said that the authority also needed to consider the speed with which it acts, and the general reputation of the jurisdiction, which in most cases was more important.