Paul Bugeja, former president of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, was appointed CEO of the Malta Tourism Authority in 2014. He spoke to The Report Company about the Mediterranean island nation's plus points as a tourism destination, and outlined the opportunities for the sector's growth.
The Report Company: What would you highlight as Malta's advantages?
Paul Bugeja: We are relatively small, but we are a fully-fledged country. We are a member of the EU and we have our own government, but being small we have the advantage of being flexible, versatile and dynamic. We can adapt quite easily, and if we test something and it doesn't work, we can change quickly to something which is better.
TRC: To what extent does Malta's Commonwealth membership make it different from other EU nations?
PB: We have the Mediterranean way of doing things, including lifestyle but are used to following British standards. Our education system is aligned to that of the UK, and our internal systems and work ethic are also aligned to the UK. But at the same time, we have adapted quite well to the European ways of doing things since joining the EU in 2004.
TRC: Where do you think Malta could do better in terms of tourism?
PB: I think we have lost a little ground in terms of hospitality. The main reason that people visit Malta, besides our history and culture, is the way we live. I think that is one of our unique selling points and one we should not lose sight of. We need to keep on pushing that aspect of hospitality and welcoming whoever comes to Malta with open arms.
TRC: What are you doing to ensure Malta's culture is at the forefront of the tourism experience?
PB: As well as building on the cultural aspects of the usual places of interest such as Valletta with the upcoming celebration of European City of Culture in 2018 and where a lot of places are being renovated to bring back their old feel, we are also working on initiatives within the island's villages, because that is where visitors can find an authentic experience. People can stay in old houses in villages, which both helps to generate some funds for their upkeep while meeting the demands of new travellers who want to experience life with the locals.
We need to keep on leveraging on Gozo, as that is quite a unique place. Even we Maltese go to Gozo for an experience because it is totally different to Malta. I think that Gozo is and should be kept as authentic as we can. We should continue to create incentives to make sure that the traditions that are unique and different in Gozo are retained and built upon.
TRC: What experience can the UK visitor to Malta enjoy during their trip?
PB: There are a variety of attractions for UK visitors. Some come and visit places where their parents were based during military times, for example. Our history is very much linked to the UK, and we would like to continue to build on that relationship. For the younger generation, besides the sun and the sea, we are creating events, such as the Annie Mac event and Isle of MTV.
We also have a number of sporting events, such as the Mdina Grand Prix, and the Rolex yacht race. We also have several marathons and a branded triathlon such as the Xterra.
What makes the experience in Malta unique as compared to other destinations is the seasonality. Malta has a very mild winter. The weather is relatively mild, and I think that Malta can be an island for all seasons in terms of music events. Another of our big advantages is connectivity. We are very well connected in terms of flights, and not just from mainland Europe, as in total we are connected to 94 cities in summer and over 50 cities in the winter months.
TRC: What niche markets can Malta target?
PB: Targeting the LGBT market is an ongoing activity for us, given that Malta is currently top of the Rainbow Index, ahead of Belgium and the United Kingdom in terms of rankings. There have been new laws enacted recently which make it easier for people to get married in Malta, and therefore our marketing on this front is very expansive in Germany, Italy, in the UK, and in America.
Targeting the LGBT market is an ongoing activity for us, given that Malta is currently top of the Rainbow Index, ahead of Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Paul Bugeja, CEO of Malta Tourism Authority
TRC: As the British are the largest tourist group in Malta, do you anticipate much impact from Brexit on their numbers?
PB: One cannot really see too far in the future because there are so many parameters and so many considerations that are still unknown. What I can say is that I have been to the World Travel Market in London and none of the operators have shown any concern in terms of volume, be they airlines or tour and cruise operators. We are not hugely concerned about the medium to short term at this stage.
What we are doing is building our marketing on the strength of our relationship with the UK: our history; our long relationship; the fact that British people feel comfortable coming to Malta; the connections that we have in terms of flights; English Language being widely spoken; and the safety aspect of Malta as well. We need to highlight all of these aspects even more now.
TRC: What is your outlook for links with British business?
PB: Malta has always been open for business with many countries. Our legislation is so close to the UK's that whoever knows British standards, especially accounting and legal, automatically feels comfortable in Malta, whether we are in the EU are not. We as an authority are not the decision-makers when it comes to our Malta-UK business relationship, but from what I have heard and what I have seen, the government will do its utmost to make it easy for any British operators that wish to come to Malta. The infrastructure is there; the systems are there; and the legalities are in place. The language is also very important, and the ease of conducting business here.
TRC: What opportunities are there for British investment into the Maltese tourism industry?
PB: Investment from the UK, or from any other country, is more than welcome, especially when it comes to hotel development. We have quite a number of British visitors and we hope to attract brands that are well recognised within the UK. This year we have seen accommodation requests practically double. We have also seen growing demand for boutique hotels, especially in the Valletta area. Old palaces are being converted into small units with between 10 and 20 rooms, and UK investments are obviously very welcome in that sense.
TRC: What incentives exist for investment in Malta's tourism industry?
PB: In terms of current properties, if they are within certain core areas, they benefit from being allowed to develop a greater number of rooms. There are no specific financial incentives, although whoever is renting out the property will have a flat tax rate of 15% as compared to the 35% normal rate.
TRC: What can you tell us about Valletta's preparations to become 2018 European Capital of Culture?
PB: Every year in Europe two cities are selected as the cities of culture, and Valletta is one of them for 2018. The city is at the moment going through a huge upgrade; there are quite a lot of developments happening, and during 2018 there will also be a number of cultural events. Some of them will be permanent, and some of them will just be for the year.
TRC: What impact do you expect Malta's EU Council presidency to have on the tourism industry?
PB: There are a huge number of incoming delegations, and there will be over 300 events during the first six months. There will be a number of relatively big conferences and meetings, with each ministry preparing its own plans. We are giving the government logistical support as the Malta Tourism Authority.
There are so many activities, so many places to visit in such a small space that you would never be bored in Malta.
CEO of Malta Tourism Authority
TRC: What would you like people to understand about Malta as a tourism destination?
PB: For me, what distinguishes us is our size. In the morning, you can be sightseeing in historic Valletta, which is like an open museum, then have lunch while enjoying the Grand Harbour sea views. In the afternoon, you can go to the small fishing village of Marsaxlokk in the south, or visit historic sites which date back to 7,000 years ago. You can walk through history itself in such a small space. Then in the evening you can go to the nightclubs and entertainment centres. Or, you can go the beach for part of the day. All of this is in the space of just a few kilometres. The weather is also one of our great advantages. There are so many activities, so many places to visit in such a small space that you would never be bored in Malta. The Malta Tourism Authority is working to create more events, for locals and for foreigners alike. But I feel that we should continue to build on what our predecessors left us. Whatever legacy we have received, we should continue to improve upon it for future generations to be able to benefit both on a cultural and a commercial level, while also ensuring that the Maltese retain their identity.