More than three decades ago, Greece’s Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, put forward a European resolution to establish a European Capital of Culture (ECoC) programme that would safeguard and promote the diversity of cultures in Europe and contribute to the long-term development of cities. Athens became the first city to hold the title in 1985. This year, Leeuwarden, the provincial capital of the Netherlands’ province of Friesland, and Malta’s capital Valletta have been awarded the honour for 2018.
“The European Capital of Culture is among the most high profile events in Europe,” said Malta’s Minister for Justice, Culture and Local Government, Owen Bonnici. According to a 2013 study by the European Parliament, the ECoC has been proven to generate noticeable impacts in host cities, such as an increase in cultural vibrancy, image enhancement, social impacts, and economic impacts, all of which come about largely through increased tourism.
Valletta’s process to gaining this prestigious title started six years ago, when it applied to be an ECoC. Thirteen independent experts in the cultural field reviewed the proposal before the panel made its recommendation, and the European Council officially designated Valletta ECoC for 2018. Valletta has also been awarded €1.5 million as part of the ECoC Melina Mercouri Prize (named after its founder), thanks to the city’s well-rounded showcasing of European culture in its ECoC application and its citizens’ strong involvement in planning the year’s proposed projects.
That money will go towards the more than 140 projects and 400 events that Valletta is planning this year. In fact, the city’s designation has already triggered key infrastructure projects that will help boost the economy and sustain the city in the long run. Numerous buildings and locations in Valletta have been renovated, including the Triton Fountain and the famous Strait Street. The Auberge D’Italie, which was formerly the Tourism Ministry, is being transformed into a new national art museum.
The European Parliament study from 2013 found that “the [ECoC] Programme has had a considerable effect on immediate to medium-term tourism trends in a large proportion of cities. This, in turn, can have a significant impact on the city’s economy.” However, the study noted that evidence for wider economic impact, like job creation, is less robust – in part due to a lack of the appropriate complex methodologies needed to measure this.
What is certain is that Malta has been seeing a significant increase in tourism over the past couple of years, and the speed of that trend is likely to increase thanks to Valletta’s 2018 ECoC designation. In 2017, there was a 24 percent increase in cruise tourism from North America, compared to 2016. Overall, 2.3 million tourists visited Malta in 2017, a 15.7 percent increase from the previous year.
Valletta has a long history of tourism – and its benefits to the economy. The city has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980, with one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world (320 monuments all within 55 hectares). In 1566, the Knights of St. John began planning the building of Valletta, following the Siege of Malta in 1565 when the Ottoman Empire tried to invade the island and the Knights of St. John repelled them.
The fortified city sits on a narrow and hilly peninsula surrounded by water. Its perimeter has remained largely unchanged since the departure of the Knights of St. John in the late 1700s, after the French Revolution.