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The evolution of tourism in Malta

Interview - August 21, 2014
Malta’s Minister of Tourism Dr. Edward Zammit Lewis discusses the importance of tourism to the Maltese economy, new marketing strategies, expanding Malta’s tourism offerings beyond sun, sea and sand, and preparations for 2018 when Valetta will become European Capital of Culture.
This is a year of celebrations for Malta, and one comes to celebrate not only what the country has achieved in the last 50, 40, 35 & 10 years, but more importantly, the firm direction where the country is going. H.E. Dr. Joseph Muscat has stated: “Malta of today doesn't just stand on its own two feet; it punches above its weight”. What is Malta´s next punch? How has Malta been able to achieve so much in such a short period of time?

Malta has made important decisions in the last 15 years. This new government, which is 18 months old, was expeditious in making important decisions, positioning Malta as being more relevant than its size and population. Our selling points are our digital infrastructure, which is an important investment; our flexible workforce; our ability to take express action, and our accessibility of the political class. The political class, especially in the last 18 months, distinguished itself by making quick and important decisions regarding business. This year, we are experiencing a record of 1.6 million tourists a year. In the month of August alone, we will experience a number of tourists that is more than half of our population.

The importance of tourism to the Maltese economy cannot be understated. Representing 29% of GDP, a record 1.6 million tourists visited last year earning over 1.4 billion euro for Malta. What do you think attracts so many tourists to come to Malta compared to other Mediterranean destinations? What sets Malta apart?

Malta is unique. Our best selling points, for the UK market, is our English language. The English language is a passport to the world. Another factor is our uniqueness in culture for such a small area as well as our European heritage. The Knights of Malta came from the best European families of the time. I cannot say that Malta has only a multicultural heritage, but a European heritage, which makes us unique. Our size is important as well. You can enjoy many things in a day. A holiday maker can visit a variety of places; he can swim, visit cultural activities, and dine at his favorite restaurant, all in one day. Furthermore, our hospitality is another important selling point. Finally, our Anglo-Saxon way of doing things: we conduct ourselves in a professional manner. That is important as well. That distinguishes us from other destinations.

You have recently traveled to the UK, trying to consolidate Malta´s presence in your number one source market. I have two questions here. First, what was the main objective of this trip? And second, what have you personally felt, is the perception the Brits have about Malta?

There were two main objectives for my trip. I wanted to see the priorities of our Malta Tourism Authority Office in partnering with London towards our objectives in such an important market. Second, I met the main tour operators who send tourists to Malta. They are incredibly influential for this industry, as they are the Malta specialists. I wanted to exchange ideas and see how we can improve in order to strengthen our position in the UK market, as regards the perception of the UK vis-à-vis Malta. Our marketing strategy for the UK is shifting from the point of departure, although we admit that it is still important in getting us the market. I believe Malta has potential in other areas, for example business conferences. We are excellent at organizing conferences. From the information I have received in the past 3 months, the expenditure of those organizing conferences in Malta are much lower than in other competing markets. Another initiative in which the MTA Office in London is tackling is more emphasis on digital media. We are seeing a shift from the traditional way of marketing (tour operator-based) to more emphasis on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other digital media.

In order to break the negative effects of seasonality, what is your administration doing to make Malta a year-round destination?

We are taking concrete initiatives. First of all, the statistics of this year are very encouraging. We are managing to widen the big season. April this year was considered a big month as some hotels experienced more than 90% occupancy, which is usually obtained later in July and August. We need to take more initiative in niche markets that guarantee us more tourism like conferences, or in religious, marriage, and cultural tourism. We intend to strengthen the calendar of activities available in the winter months. The profile of winter tourism is one whose decision to come is motivated by an important event occurring in Malta.

The data so far is that we are widening the peak season. Naturally, as a Mediterranean country, it is not an easy feat.

The existing tourism policy covers 2012-2016, but your administration is in the mist of reaching out to the relevant stakeholders to revamp and formulate your own strategic policy for tourism. Can you give us some insights into your progress so far?

This concern was expressed by the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, which is a very influential entity in the tourism sector, and an entity that takes various initiatives. My assessment is that the strategy 2012-2016 needs to be renewed as tourism is a very volatile and highly evolving sector. There are niche markets that in 2012 were not on our radar. This is something that needs revision. Though the number of tourists is increasing, we want higher quality tourists. We have to be prepared for tourism from outside the EU (for example, from Brazil, China, India, and the USA). We need adequate standards, human resources who can cope with this, and hotels of adequate standards. It is a vision as well; it is a strategy to get all stakeholders involved. Our initiatives are more in line with planning long term.

Valletta has been named Europe’s cultural capital of 2018. With a history of over 7,000 years, I’m sure this comes to no surprise of the Maltese, but it must be gratifying, and fit well into your strategy of rebranding Malta as more than a sea and sand destination. How are you working to leverage this impressive accolade?

We have to make a success of it in two ways. First, we need to succeed in our preparations for the 2018 date. We have a lot of preparation to do. Secondly, which is more important, is the aftermath. We have to create a positive aftermath, which is the revival of Valletta. Although we registered an improvement in the last few years, Valletta needs more life. It has big potential but we need to prepare it with the adequate infrastructure, to restore properties. For 2018, we have the necessary funding to do it. We need more tourism infrastructure, like hotels. I notice a very positive development of boutique hotels and there are approximately 16 other pending applications for them. That would project Valletta as a capital city of culture, and as a destination on its own as a city break like Rome, Florence or Berlin. We don’t have short city-break type of tourism. This is an excellent opportunity, and I believe that Valletta has the potential to become a destination as a city-break. It will measure the success of 2018 if we manage to create this image of Valletta.

While preparing for this meeting I found several interviews where you outlined the importance of addressing the short and long term effects that climate change will have on Malta. Why are you so passionate about this issue and what are some of the initiatives that will combat these effects?

First of all, there are EU targets which we have to reach. I believe there is a lack of awareness in the tourism sector. We are sustainable in the way we do tourism, from a climate change stance. We have registered some improvement, but there is room for improvement. The Tourism Ministry, together with the responsible authority, is taking initiatives such as the Eco Certification for Sustainable Farm Houses. There is a niche market for farm houses, rural buildings, present even in the UK market. People hire farm houses for about a month or two weeks, and experience an authentic experience in Gozo. There is a particular program where we promote eco certification (that is, mechanisms for more sustainability, like eco-friendly energy generation). One may look at the priorities of the Italian presidency of the EU. He said there are two main basis of tourism: sustainability and culture. Culture is a main asset for tourism. Sustainability is another important aspect in which we need to work hard on.

How important is the role of organizations under your ministry, such as the Malta Tourism Authority and Air Malta to the continued growth and prosperity of the Maltese tourism sector?

The entities you mentioned are of fundamental importance. MTA is fundamental for the formulation and implementation of tourism policy. However, there are important private entities which we have to consult, and it is important because they utilize a hands-on approach. These are very important, and the most important thing for a tourism minister is to be a good mediator between the government and the private sector. A minister has to be sensitive to the industry’s needs. The majority of investment in tourism in Malta is multi-zoned. There is a lot of FDI in manufacturing or pharmaceuticals. Tourism is mainly a couple of families which have a tradition in tourism and invest and risk all their money in the sector. It is more important to have a good rapport before taking decisions.

We are aiming to publish our report for the World Travel Market in London in early November, which is certainly the most important tourism event of the year. As a final message, what would you say to the over 50,000 global travel professionals about the Maltese tourism sector, maybe something that would surprise them?

I encourage them to come to Malta, because, although we are – by European standards – a very small island, we have a cocktail of attractions wherein any ordinary tourist may find something of interest (sports, culture, religion, and entertainment). We have an area in Malta where there is an immense number of entertainment outlets. We have the island of MTV! Malta is not just sun and relaxation, but a place where you can enjoy yourself, and even do business in a relaxed way.