Just a few weeks ago, policymakers were arguing whether it was time to rethink our tourism strategy as over-tourism was causing stress on the infrastructure of the country and could undermine the long- term prospects of the industry. We are not alone in trying to get to grips with this dilemma. Barcelona, Venice, Sardinia and Amsterdam face the same challenge.

Viewing the empty streets of our tourist hotspots in the last few weeks may raise the question as to whether we need to still worry about the crowds of tourists milling around our narrow streets in Mdina and Valletta. The tourism industry will rise from the ashes of the pandemic conflagration. But will it be the same industry we knew up to a few months ago?

Every industry that wants to get a better return from its investment will plan its future on improving the quality of its product or service. This strategy is easier conceived than done.

I have been following the local tourism industry for more decades than I care to remember. The dialectic of the debate on the future of our tourism industry has been peppered with clichés that often reveal little more than wishful thinking by policymakers.

We started with having a strategy of attracting ‘bucket and spade tourists’ mainly from the UK. We then progressed to all-inclusive package holidays aimed at the mass of lower-income Europeans who were discovering the excitement of travel. This type of mass tourism continues to grow as low-cost travel and rental accommodation makes frequent leisure travel more affordable.

However, the wishful thinking gleam in the eyes of policymakers and operators is always evident in the buzz words that we often hear. Upmarket, cultural, medical and educational are adjectives that some planners usually append to the word tourism to describe the kind of quality upgrade that we should be aiming for to add value to this industry.

There is no doubt that improvements have been made to create the right infrastructure to support an upgraded quality of tourist arrivals. But there are other areas where we are failing to understand what needs to be done to improve the experience that tourists with higher spending power expect.

Many of our four- and five-star hotels, for instance, often achieve the quality of service of similar hotels in the top tourist destinations. But the same cannot be said about the upkeep of our urban and rural environment.

When asked to recommend a typical Gozitan dish, the waiter unhesitatingly recommended that his favourite local dish was ‘hamburger and chips’

Let us consider some examples. The latest fashion is for people to expropriate public seafront land to park their imported caravans that they use as a seafront residence.

From Armier to Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq to St Thomas Bay, one can now see more shanty towns cropping up. Last year, the police said they could not do anything about this expropriation of public land since anyone can park a vehicle on public property.

This defeatist attitude is putting at risk public health as these caravan people probably dispose of their wastewater in the sea. It also reduces stretches of our beautiful shoreline to a grotty conglomeration of caravans that do nothing to project our island as a picturesque quality tourist destination.

Last year, I went to a restaurant in Marsalforn while on a day trip to Gozo. It was springtime with quite a few mainly elderly tourists wander around this enchanting bay. I could not help overhearing the conversation between a French couple and the waiter, who probably was of a Balkan nationality, in one of the better restaurants. When asked to recommend a typical Gozitan dish, the waiter unhesitatingly recommended that his favourite local dish was ‘hamburger and chips’.

Upgrading our tourism industry can no longer be about having top-notch hotels and restaurants. In an overpopulated island, we must ensure that our environmental, urban conservation policies as well as the enforcement of various regulations are aimed at projecting a disciplined image of our islands.

We have too many entrepreneurs who believe that they can get away with placing more tables in a public square to boost their restaurant turnover. We have equally too many ordinary people grabbing public land to build a semi-permanent seafront home in an illegal shantytown.

For too long, we have gauged our success in tourism by focusing on the number of visitors. Quality tourism has to be based on investing in our people, enforcing regulations and preserving the integrity and beauty of our towns, villages and seashore.

Over-tourism is not the way forward for this vital industry.


Sign up to our free newsletters

Get the best updates straight to your inbox:
Please select at least one mailing list.

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.