More tourists in 2019 but industry insiders concerned about unsustainable practices

Cassi Camilleri - 10th August 2019

Tourism industry stakeholders have raised the alarm over “unsustainable” practices impacting the sector, which, this year, has seen a rise in the number of visitors to the island.

According to figures recently released by the National Statistics Office, the first five months of 2019 registered a 2.8% increase in inbound tourist numbers – up to 929,979 - when compared to the same period in 2018.

However, expenditure per capita, from January to May of this year, stood at €697, thus registering a slight increase of only 0.4%, when compared to 2018, which stood at €694 per person. Total expenditure per capita improved in the first six months of 2019, which stood at €731, an increase of 1.1% when compared to 2018.

Malta Chamber Director General Kevin J. Borg said that the country should strive to develop the industry, including the quality of the touristic product, infrastructure, and services, in a manner that meets the expectations of visiting tourists. "This should be done, while ensuring that such development improves, not burdens, the quality of life of Maltese taxpayers" he said.

To this end, Mr Borg said, the Malta Chamber consistently argued, that the performance indicator to consider should not be how many tourists the country is capable to attract but the yield obtained from each tourist.  This position was amply illustrated in 'The Economic Vision for Malta 2014-2020', which identified the sector of tourism as one to watch out for. 

Refurbishing hotels will only get you as far as the door, said Jankarl Farrugia, founder of hospitality company Hotelogique. Outside hotels, ongoing construction, roadworks, and beach overhauls are having an impact on visitors’ experience. “We need to ensure that such works are being carried out within the legal periods and times of day, and that construction sites are well covered up and concealed, and not exposed as an eye sore. Serious reinforcement is needed not just on these sites but also on the roads,” he stressed.

Eden Leisure Group Chief Executive Officer and Malta Business Bureau President, Simon Decesare, also pointed to the noise pollution prevalent all around the island. “Better building standards and equipment that favours less noise and dust are needed in all areas,” he said.

However, ensuring the product is up to standard is not enough, according to these stakeholders, who resounded the concerns laid out in the Malta Tourism Authority’s (MTA) National Tourism Policy. Here, the MTA’s vision is one of sustainability and engaging in high-quality tourism which brings in better returns per capita.

Malta’s size has its limits and therefore it is understood that quality – of tourists – should trump quantity.

A hotel performance survey recently conducted by BOV and Deloitte shows that occupancy levels in hotels went down by 5.5% for the first three months of 2019 compared to last year. “Much of the private accommodation is competing unfairly with licensed hotels, which means that as they are paying less and implementing lower standards, they can charge less than hotels and make better profit margins,” Mr Decesare stated, going on to highlight the problem with the surge in hotel permit applications. Moreover, the success of the events supported by the Capital of Culture, the masses that creativity attracted, is proof that Malta can be more than just sand and sea, according to Mr De Cesare.

The strategy of filling up the lower seasons through events and incentives is an excellent strategy and should be continued. We have been talking about this forever but little more than cosmetic improvements have been made,” Mr Decesare said.

This was reiterated by Hotelogique’s Jankarl Farrugia who went one further by saying that “tourists lack attractions on our islands.” His view is that there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to our environment. “Other than historical sites, museums, an old movie location and an aquarium, there is no real major attraction that could be considered as a landmark. We need a policy that encourages the development of such attractions, family parks or anything which a tourist can enjoy and remember.” He also notes that green could be the future.

“One must not ignore the fact that modern travellers prefer destinations that integrate sustainability into their holiday experience. They will expect a tangible commitment to the natural environment and will make their travel choices on the basis of demonstrable green credentials,” he added.

This article initially appeared in the July edition of The Malta Business Observer.

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More tourists in 2019 but industry insiders concerned about unsustainable practices