Small nations games open month-long sports tourism bonanza

Malta is welcoming more than 1,000 athletes and officials, who are participating in the Games of the Small States of Europe that starts Monday

Eleanor Bezzina, the Malta team captain for the Games of the Small States of Europe
Eleanor Bezzina, the Malta team captain for the Games of the Small States of Europe

Malta is welcoming more than 1,000 athletes and officials, who are participating in the Games of the Small States of Europe that starts Monday.

Added to these are at least 30 foreign journalists, a number of high profile dignitaries and supporters who have travelled to Malta for the week-long games.

This is the third-time Malta will host the small nations games that bring together athletes from Europe’s nine smallest countries, including Malta.

But the GSSE is only one of a trio of international sporting events that are expected to create a month-long sports tourism bonanza.

Malta will also host the IPF World Classic Open Powerlifting Championship between 11 June and 18 June, and the UEFA Under-19 Championship between 3 July and 16 July.

The economic spinoff of these sporting events cannot be underestimated with the Malta Olympic Committee estimating that the GSSE alone will increase the total number of bed nights by 30%.

Just a week later, the powerlifting championship is also expected to attract some 1,500 athletes, officials, coaches, physiotherapists and relatives, according to organiser Mauro Gasan, managing director at Madletiks Ltd, a company specialising in attracting international sports events to Malta.

“We currently have 538 confirmed athletes, coming from 70 different countries in what is being billed as the biggest ever event the IPF has recorded in its history,” Gasan said. “This is a prestigious event and it is estimated that it will generate more than €2.5 million in the Maltese economy.”

But there is also the unquantifiable spinoff from such an event in the form of free advertising for Malta through widespread international media coverage, Gasan added.

The powerlifting championship will be transmitted live on Eurosport 1 with a potential audience of 600 million views in 53 countries in Europe, eight in Asia and South America.

The UEFA U19 Tournament to be held at the start of July will also be broadcast in most European countries, including participants Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Iceland, Greece, and Norway. Malta as the host country will also participate.

Malta Football Association Secretary-general Angelo Chetcuti said that Malta’s original bid three years ago to host these finals was intended for the 2024 edition. However, with some associations withdrawing their bids in the wake of the pandemic, Malta won the right to host the tournament a year earlier.

“This choice reflects a level of trust enjoyed by the MFA at UEFA level,” Chetcuti said, adding that such a tournament gives “invaluable promotion” to the country.

He said the tournament will see the participation of 160 players. “These players are part of the elite pool of the most talented players in their age group in Europe and represent the future of European football.”

The players will also be accompanied by technical, medical, and other supporting staff. Each country will also have supporters who will be travelling to Malta.

“Football already generates thousands of bed nights per year, and this event will better those numbers,” Chetcuti said.

Sports is a growing niche in Malta’s tourism product. It attracts “a different type of tourist”, Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo said when unveiling VisitMalta’s sponsorship of the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s world-famous cycling competition, earlier this month.

“By hosting sports events and providing facilities for visitors, Malta can continue attracting international athletes and coaches, which can help to raise the standard of sports in the country,” the minister had said.

A novelty destination

Sports tourism was only recently included by the Malta Tourism Authority in its strategy and Mauro Gasan believes that Malta’s attraction is its novelty as a destination for sports events.

“In view of the fact that such sports entities are all the time looking for new destinations, Malta, is like uncharted waters for any sports organisation, thus making it very attractive,” Gasan said.

But size and moderate weather also matter, he added. “The fact that we are small is also very attractive. The IPF event in Malta will be the first time where athletes will not be required to travel between the venue of the competition and the hotel thus eliminating complex logistical problems and reducing the carbon footprint of the event.”

He also underscored the quality of the country’s infrastructure, which often comes as a surprise to international sports bodies.

In other instances, such as a major football tournament like the UEFA U19 Championship, it is not just the quality of the facilities but also the number available that matter.

“This is probably the biggest final tournament we could host, given the nature of the event,” Chetcuti said but the MFA, he added, “will always be open to opportunities to host events of an international nature”.

Legacy and investment

But the success of sporting events should not be measured only through sporting achievements and economic growth, according to the MOC spokesperson.

The small nations games have spurred an investment to the tune of €60 million into sporting facilities that will continue being used by Maltese athletes.

“While Malta is vying for its highest-ever medal tally since the inception of the GSSE… to be fully declared a success these games should be able to create a long-lasting legacy that provides Malta with changed attitudes as to how sport is viewed,” the MOC said.

Mauro Gasan believes that for Malta to continue to attract international sporting events investment from the private and public sectors has to keep growing.

“The authorities need to help more private companies when it comes to sports tourism, because currently the system doesn’t support private companies investing in sports tourism. Only associations or sports clubs are currently supported by SportMalta,” he said.