Malta is a treasure island, says PM

The old-world charm of its towns, the genuine friendliness of its people, the vibrant lifestyle and the warm summers make Malta an ideal destination and unsurprisingly, the country has been experiencing double-digit growth in tourist numbers in recent years.

Malta's unique selling point is the country's history, culture and the fun factor that it offers – its way of life, says Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

In an interview with our sister publication Arabian Knight, he says: "All these elements are difficult to find in one place anywhere else. We have such a big concentration of history, culture and at the same time a vibrant place with plenty of great lifestyle offerings. We truly have a unique destination."

With a chuckle, the Prime Minister says size matters. "Sometimes people smile while I say this …it’s our size. We are such a small country, we are one of the very few places where you can go in the morning to visit a world heritage site; in the afternoon enjoy yourself on the beach; and in the evening come back to have a nice dinner.

"The size of the country makes it possible for you to maximise the time you spend with us. I think that is another unique selling point for us. In short, Malta is a treasure island."

While Malta, in the past few years, has focused on other sectors of the economy too for growth, tourism still accounts for almost one third of the country’s GDP.

The tourism numbers increased from 1.6 million in 2013 to 2.6 million last year and they are expected  to breach the three-million mark this year.

“The results of the first quarter this year are significantly up on the same period of last year and there is an indication that this year will also be a record year,” said Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, addressing a group of journalists from the Gulf in his office in the capital Valletta.

Malta has launched various initiatives to draw tourists to its shores and surely the Middle East, particularly the Gulf states, is a target market of the country.

“We now have the right products for the Middle East market, including luxury hotels and unique experiences and wonderful events,” Mizzi noted as he answered questions from the journalists. TTN was one of the publications invited for the Malta tour, organised by the Consulate General of Malta in Dubai and Malta Tourism Authority.

“We are using three hubs – Dubai, Istanbul and Doha – to connect us to the Arab world. Naturally, the results are showing. We have increased traffic from the Far East too. Connectivity is key, but it has to be followed by proper marketing,” said Mizzi.

“We have seen a huge improvement in the product quality with the regeneration of Valletta and development of exclusive properties around the country. Now we have to create awareness that Malta is a good destination through sustained campaigns in the region,” he continued.

The minister said Malta is attracting quite a bit of conference business from the Middle East, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia. “This is very positive. We also see individual travellers, who usually spend summer months in London or Paris, come to Malta and spend some time here.

“They feel quite at home here. This is the message we would like to convey to the region,” he highlighted.

The direct contribution of the tourism sector to Malta’s GDP last year was $2.1 billion. It has about 52,000 hotel beds and 50,000 airbnb offerings. The average duration of stay by tourists now stands at seven nights, though more and more people are coming for two nights.

“We are now introducing boutique hotels in the historic quarters of Valletta and Sliema and we are also encouraging the development of high-end hotels in other areas. Actually, there is a 25pc growth in room capacity in the last three years,” he said.

Listing out the initiatives being undertaken by Malta’s tourism authorities, he said: “We are focused on extending our route development to connect to more destinations – whether it’s through Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways or other key legacy carriers.

“Our national carrier Air Malta is developing its strategy where it’s focusing on the Middle East and Sub- Saharan Africa. Next year, we will start flights to Accra (Ghana) and other destinations will follow. Also, we hope that within one year, we will operate a direct flight to Mumbai in India. This should be a game changer for us,” said Mizzi, who has been credited with restructuring the ailing Air Malta and increasing connectivity to the island nation via agreements with various airlines.

The largest source markets for Malta are the UK, Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Holland. “We are diversifying this and participating in a wide variety of shows across the world to promote Malta. The segments we focus on include families, young people, kids, adventure holidays and cultural tourism,” he said.

Interestingly, last year, Malta’s biggest tourism growth market was South Korea. “We are also targeting Australia, US and India as major source markets for the future,” said Mizzi.

He hopes the interest generated in India by two recent blockbuster Bollywood movies shot in Malta – Bharat and Thugs of Hindustan – would bring in more tourists from the South Asian giant.

In a major development last month, Ryanair announced plans to launch a new Malta-based joint venture, Malta Air. “The government has a ‘golden share’ in the new carrier, which will take over the 60 routes that Ryanair already operates to and from the country. Hopefully, they will grow to 120 routes in the next few years,” said Mizzi.

“The setting up of Malta Air will go a long way for the better sustainability of the tourism industry as well as maintaining its growth momentum,” Mizzi said.

Malta International Airport (MIA) recorded a passenger traffic of 6.7 million last year, a 13 per cent increase over the previous year. With the influx of tourists, there is a need for expansion of the airport infrastructure as well. Land has been allocated for the expansion and MIA has submitted plans to extend the terminal as it’s a bit stretched at the moment, Mizzi admitted.

One of Malta’s biggest draws is its colourful annual calendar of traditional seasonal events such as carnival and summer festas, together with an eclectic blend of local and international events, entertainment and exhibitions. From classical and jazz to band and folk music, from theatre and opera to dance and baroque festivals, the island has something for everyone.

“We have re-energised the cultural scene with events that cater to all segments of the visitors and locals love them too. We are also working on the gourmet side to enhance our product quality,” continued Mizzi.

Giving a boost to tourism studies, the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS) will launch a Master’s Degree programme this year in association with the Dubai-based Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management (EAHM). The quality course, which is expected to attract students from other countries too, will offer students in Malta and Dubai flexibility to study in either locations.

Around the Mediterranean there are many interesting destinations to visit. So, why must one come to Malta? The minister instantly replies: “Three things – great heritage, diversity and hospitality. We have 7,000 years of history and a great cultural heritage; many different activities to enjoy across the country; and a very hospitable, friendly people. These factors make us stand out from the rest. Since we offer such diversity in a small place, you get more value for your time.”