The Mediterranean is famous for its wildly popular, perennially-alluring island holiday destinations; Ibiza, Sardinia, and Mykonos would be to name but a few. No matter where you go in the region, you can generally be guaranteed “sun, sea, and sand” in spades.
Though this lends itself to a fiercely competitive market, the tiny island of Malta has found a way to successfully diversify its travel industry and stand out to tourists for a myriad of reasons, including its vibrant culture, rich history, and magnificent architecture. “Traditionally we were a sun and sea resort, focused on the summer months”, says Konrad Mizzi, Malta’s Minister for Tourism.
“Over the last few years we have been trying to diversify our offering, and we’ve worked really hard to ensure that we have an offering which people can come [to] throughout the year – even in the winter.”
Malta is one of the most LGBTIQ-friendly tourism destinations in Europe. Minister Mizzi believes that “when you have the right leadership in place in the country, which creates an environment whereby people are more welcoming, that creates the right ingredients for change – and I think that’s what we’ve done over the last six years in the LGBTIQ sector.” Copyright: South EU Summit
Tourism is one of the largest driving forces in the island’s disruptive economy, and Mizzi’s strategy appears to be paying off handsomely. The number of tourists to visit Malta in 2018 rose to 2.6 million – precisely double its 2010 levels. Key to this success story, says the Minister, has been the development of Malta’s annual calendar and its array of festivities in recent years that includes events provided by MTV, BBC Radio One, and dance-music organisers Elrow; a kids’ week hosted by Nickelodeon; and a successful annual Pride festival (Malta has been recognised as one of the most LGBTIQ-friendly destinations in Europe).
“Our offering is changing”, explains the Minister. “People are coming here for culture, some people come here for history, others come here for niche sectors. What makes Malta amazing is the fact that you have so many things to do in such a small place; people get more than they expect.”
Tourism is one of the largest driving forces in the island’s disruptive economy, and Mizzi’s strategy appears to be paying off handsomely. The number of tourists to visit Malta in 2018 rose to 2.6 million – precisely double its 2010 levels. Copyright: South EU Summit
Last year its capital, Valletta, was declared the European Capital of Culture – an honour presented annually by the European Union to commend the unique cultural heritage of the bloc’s cities. This award led to a jam-packed schedule of celebrations that saw a turnout of over 100,000 Maltese people.
The island-nation is also focused on regenerating smaller cities such as St Paul’s Bay, St Julian’s and Sliema in a bid to attract more tourists to its inner-harbour region and overall archipelago. “We’re working to ensure that our traditional village cores are also in themselves an attraction, whereby visitors can experience the local village culture and obviously our sister island Gozo, which has a dedicated strategy for adventure tourism”, says Mizzi.
Malta plans to continue strengthening and expanding its connectivity with sister Gozo, as well as countries around the world, as the island now has two carriers flying under the Maltese flag. Copyright: South EU Summit
Interconnectivity and Malta
Malta’s touristic growth can be attributed to the expansion of its aviation sector, which has allowed the island to make significant strides in interconnectivity and accessibility to the masses. The expansion includes an investment of at least 100 million euros that will focus on the development of Malta International Airport’s terminal infrastructure, as well as the surrounding airport campus.
“In addition to events, I think we’ve worked really hard on route developments. In tourism, to ensure that you increase and diversify your arrivals, then you need to ensure that you have the right flight connections. This year we have 129 destinations to and from Malta, and that’s significant”, Mizzi says.
The turnaround in the country’s state-owned, flag-carrying airline, Air Malta, is considered vital to this ambition. As a relatively small operator with only ten aircraft, the company began to suffer when it found itself competing directly with bigger outfits who also shuttle tourists to the island. In 2018, after deciding to remarket itself as a more premium provider, the airline turned its first profit in nearly two decades.
“I see Air Malta as leading the way for our transition into a more upmarket destination”, states Mizzi. “It can be a key catalyst, for instance, to attract business travellers and to open up new markets which are currently beyond us. Air Malta created our tourism sector and it has to grow to survive.”
Looking to fill the void left by Air Malta’s evolution to the higher end of the market, the world’s biggest budget airline – Ryanair – announced plans to launch a new Malta-based subsidiary called Malta Air back in June 2019. The new low-cost carrier plans to take over the 61 routes that Ryanair already operates to and from the country, with further expansion expected. In addition to increasing connectivity, this partnership seeks to stimulate the economy through the creation of new jobs.
“I think this is something that we needed for our leisure market, and that Ryanair has now invested in another Malta-based operator I believe will reduce the risk of dependency [on one airline],” says Mizzi. “The two airlines will be offering a different proposition, but they will complement each other, and we’ll now have two carriers with the Maltese flag.”
The fact that both Air Malta and Malta Air have committed to shift their older fleets to newer, more fuel-efficient planes over the next three years also reflects Malta’s wider economic strategy for the tourism sector – one that promotes sustainability and social responsibility as a “prerequisite to growth”.
Along with facilitating greater visitor numbers, the value of tourism receipts accounts for the sector’s most significant indicator of success.
“I think there are two types of travellers which come to Malta – and we need to differentiate a little bit”, says the Minister. “We have the leisure traveller – who comes here on holiday – and you have the business traveller, whose needs are slightly different. We’re trying to increase and grow both over time, in partnership with our Hotels and Restaurants Association, and we’re working really hard to reposition the island to attract people who might spend more money.”
Working together with its hospitality and aviation industries, Malta is laying down a separate strategy to address this matter and to further enhance Maltese tourism’s profitability.
Malta has changed significantly over the last six years, from social reforms to economic growth. “We are now at a stage where we need to plan ahead for the future,” says Konrad Mizzi. Copyright: South EU Summit
“Since 2013, Malta has changed dramatically. We have introduced new sectors, we’ve pushed frontiers, we’ve introduced reforms in energy sectors, and we’ve decarbonised the tourism sector too”, says the Minister, emphasising that Gozo – Malta’s sister island – has been officially recognised as one the Mediterranean’s most eco-friendly destinations.
“We are now at a stage where we need to plan ahead for the future”, he concludes. “We need to ensure sustainable economic growth where we care about our environment, where we invest in additional open spaces and parks, and where we ensure that our citizens have access to affordable housing. I think as long as you provide a social dimension, people will welcome tourism. That is our vision, to create a cosmopolitan Malta which is strong, which is positive, whereby our people can do better…and I think we’re on the path to doing that.”