Malta is not the only country witnessing an increase in tourists. The increase is happening all around the world. During 2017, there were 1.3 billion tourist arrivals around the world, and 51 per cent chose European countries as their destinations. Different countries witnessed increases, but Iceland’s was the most spectacular. It experienced a 230 per cent increase in tourists between 2012 and 2017.
Let’s have a look at some of Malta’s figures provided by the Tourism Authority. A total 2.3 million tourists visited the islands in 2017, an increase of 16 per cent over 2016 and almost double the 1.2 million tourists in 2009. Tourist expenditure and nights increased by 14 per cent and 10 per cent respectively over 2016, with the largest number of tourists coming from the UK, Italy, Germany and France respectively.
Seventy-three per cent of tourists were first-time visitors, and the distribution of package and non-package tourists was evenly spread. On the other hand, 67 per cent of tourists chose collective accommodation such as hotels, whereas 33 per cent chose private accommodation.
The main motives for choosing Malta were sun and culture respectively and most tourists gave a positive feedback on their Maltese experience. Here one may add that tourism can also help foster a sense of openness and pride in local societies.
In 2017, about 11,000 workers were directly employed full-time in tourist services and about 6,000 worked in tourism on a part-time basis as their primary job. Many others were employed indirectly such as in public administration and banks.
Economists disagree on the contribution of tourism to the Maltese economy, but one can safely say that it is in the region of around 12 per cent of gross domestic product. This can be measured by first finding out how much tourists spend and then deducting what is imported and what remains is the contribution to GDP.
In 2017 total tourism expenditure surpassed €1.9 billion of which about 30 per cent was spent on imports of goods and services, leaving about €1.3 billion in the economy.
By now however, we know that one cannot measure the impact of an economic sector simply by looking at financial figures. Tourist destinations such as Barcelona, Mallorca and Venice have witnessed public outcry against the tourist gaze which is rendering localities to theme parks, often resulting in social and environmental problems for residents and in higher prices for goods and services.
Perhaps Malta should introduce a ħobża biż-żejt indicator to measure and compare the prices of this food item across time and space.
In Malta, we know that tourism is a very important economic sector, but on the other hand residents often have to bear the brunt of matters such as littering and overcrowding. In localities such as Sliema, Gżira, St Julian’s, Swieqi and St Paul’s Bay residents often report rowdy behaviour, late night noise pollution and excessive littering.
Walking on some promenades and pavements has become very challenging, and this is even more the case for persons with disabilities, elderly persons and parents with young children and pushchairs. Local councils often cannot cope with such matters, and the government’s taking over of various local council functions often does not help matters.
The low-cost airlines phenomenon has helped increase the quantity of tourists, and this has made travelling more affordable for millions around the world. But are host countries and localities equipped for such increases? Some cities and countries are introducing measures to regulate tourism in a more sustainable manner.
Back home, our planning models are not holistic. The doubling of tourists over a decade has been superimposed over infrastructure catering for much smaller numbers. Here I am not only referring to roads and pavements but also to sewage treatment, hospital services, public transport and other essential public goods and services.
Besides, Malta’s current economic model is based on population growth fuelled by the importation of workers. Again, it is clear that we are giving primacy to numbers and acceleration over quality and caution.
By all means, let us value our tourist product, but let us not allow its negative impacts overcome the positive ones.