In recent years, Malta has made great strides in tackling seasonality within its tourism sector. Now, the destination is broadening its appeal to new demographic segments with an even wider range of events and attractions
A last glimpse of Malta's famous Azure Window, which tragically fell into the sea after a storm in March, 2017. Photos: viewingmalta.com
Visitors from the United Kingdom make up around 30% of arrivals each year.
Many of the European countries bordering the Mediterranean have seen tourism numbers rise of late, as the after-effects of the so-called Arab Spring continue to unfold in erstwhile popular destinations such as Tunisia and Egypt. While Malta, too, has benefitted to some extent from tourists seeking safer destinations, its staggering growth in tourism arrivals from 1.3 million in 2010 to nearly 2 million in 2016 – more than four times its population of just under 450,000 – is mostly due to a constant focus on competitiveness.
Although Malta's pleasant climate and extremely low crime rate make for a comfortable beach holiday destination, its 7,000-year unbroken line of human development and activity has also provided it with a dazzling array of historic sites, from castles to even a complex of subterranean burial chambers. Meanwhile, its storied history, which features incursions by just about every Mediterranean civilisation over the centuries, makes for a fascinating blend of cultures, traditions and festivals.
Leveraging this cultural diversity is the cornerstone of the country's tourism diversification strategy, even when it comes to the most mature markets. Visitors from the United Kingdom make up around 30 percent of arrivals each year. Although the recent fall in sterling versus the euro hit average tourism spending in 2016, officials are confident that plans to set up bilateral deals with the UK will minimise any potential impact of Brexit on the island nation's tourism industry. However, as the Maltese government seeks ways to maximize the potential of its largest tourism market, it has begun to branch out into more lucrative demographic segments.
Malta's colours create breath-taking contrasts like in the traditional carnival costumes. Photo: viewingmalta.com
"We are very popular in the British Midlands, the North and with senior citizens," says Dr Edward Zammit Lewis, Tourism Minister. "Although we have an interest in retaining this market, we are gradually repositioning ourselves towards tourists who are more interested in an experience than in a holiday in the traditional sense."
One example of this refocusing is BBC Radio 1 presenter Annie Mac's Lost and Found Festival. Now in its third year, it stretches across eight core venues, including a boat and beach parties. And travellers are starting to take note of Malta's nascent party scene, which arguably began in 2006, when MTV Networks International selected Malta for its annual Isle of MTV party. In 2016, travel search site Skyscanner registered a 59 percent year-on-year increase in flight searches to the island. "Malta is reinventing itself as a seriously hip weekend break contender, with new boutique hotels and cool bars down at the Valletta waterfront complimenting an emerging dance scene centred around clubbing capital, Paceville," Skyscanner said in a statement. It predicts Malta will be the "top pick" for British tourists in 2017.
But music lovers aren't the only crowd Malta hopes to attract to its shores. The once-conservative country has risen to the top of the Rainbow Europe rankings for the first time, placing it ahead of both Belgium and the UK in terms of standards for LGBTI equality. As part of the government's reforming agenda, Malta has introduced LGBTI-inclusive education, legalized same-sex civil unions, and pushed through progressive gender laws. "Targeting the LGBTI market is an ongoing activity for us, and our marketing on this front is very expansive in Germany, the UK, and America," points out Paul Bugeja, CEO of Malta Tourism Authority, which is also working on creating authentic experiences within the villages dotted across the country to allow visitors to stay in old houses and get a taste of Maltese life with the locals.
Diving in Malta's deep blue waters
Source: NSO (National Statistic Office)
Average per-capita spend by tourists who visited Malta in 2016
Increase in tourism arrivals in 2016 versus 2015
Increase in overnight cruise passengers in 2016 compared to 2015
Number of tourist arrivals in August 2016 - the highest figure ever recorded
By gradually switching the emphasis from sun and sand to more vibrant segments, the aim is for the country to achieve two million tourism arrivals in 2017. While this goal will likely be helped along by the influx of dignitaries, officials and journalists thanks to Malta's EU Council presidency, which started in January 2017, this isn't growth for growth's sake: the objective is accompanied by a strong commitment to sustainability and to the development of human resources. The government has made a sizeable €75 million (£65 million) investment into the Institute of Tourism Studies, guaranteeing the training of thousands of tourism professionals – both home-grown and from abroad.
"Our final aim is to have a centre of excellence in tourism and hospitality education, in the middle of the Mediterranean. We plan to have around 2,500 students who will be coming to study from abroad because we cannot simply rely on the local talent to man the industry," says Pierre Fenech, director of the institute. If it is to meet soaring demand, the Institute has a big job ahead of it: according to World Travel and Tourism Council data, Malta's tourism industry already accounts for 45,500 jobs, with this figure forecast to reach 56,000 by 2024.