As Malta’s tourism industry counts the days to its planned reopening in June, operators are reporting a hesitant wait-and-see approach towards booking from prospective visitors.

“The interest to travel is high, but people have taken the wait-and-see approach, waiting for when it is truly safe to travel,” said Iain Tonna, president of the Federated Association of Travel and Tourism Agents.

The government said Malta is planning to start welcoming tourists by the beginning of June.

Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo said the first tourists to come to Malta will be from Europe, particularly from the UK, the island’s largest tourism market.

Currently, the UK is still on the ‘red list’, which means travel from there is banned except for Maltese nationals and residents.

With summer just around the corner, and with the tourism minister’s announcement, are hotels and tourist operators seeing an increase in bookings, and if so, where are these tourists coming from?

Gradual increase in hotel bookings from the UK

While the situation is constantly changing, hotels have noted a slow and gradual increase in bookings.

Josef Sant, the head of revenue management at AX Hotels, said since the minister’s declaration, the hotel has seen an increase in bookings.

“While not a substantial increase, we have noted that new bookings have outweighed cancellations,” he said.

AX Hotels have properties in Sliema, Qawra and Valletta – all key tourist localities. He said that around 40 to 50 per cent of the new bookings came from the UK.

“The travel period is mainly focused between July and August, and we have not seen many bookings for June yet.”

He noted that other bookings came from Italy, Germany, France and Cyprus.

“It is a bit too early to predict what summer will be like as COVID-19 cases and flight schedules play a part in what the situation will be like.”

Michael Camilleri Kamsky, general manager of the Westin Dragonara Resort, also highlighted the importance of flight capacity.

“The safety factor alone is not enough; we must also have sufficient flights which are affordable for tourists, so that we do not lose travellers to competing holiday destinations.”

So far, the hotel has received bookings for June, July and September, also noting the majority being British tourists.

While the hotel has experienced an encouraging shift in bookings, he said that the situation is changing constantly and that “recovery takes time”.

He said that while there has been a slight increase in demand, the booking pace is still far behind the norm of what the hotel is used to.

The situation is still very foggy and to forecast in today’s climate is practically a guessing game

“The booking trend for summer 2021 is 60 per cent down when compared to summer 2019, despite the recent wave of bookings from the UK,” said Camilleri Kamsky.

“Overall, the situation is still very foggy and a forecast in today’s situation is practically a guessing game.”

Air Malta, also noted customers were still cautious.

“It is too early to comment on any significant market changes and bookings for the peak summer months still remain suppressed. Customers appear to be awaiting encouragement from other governments around the world to travel,” a spokesperson said.

New incentives will help kick start tourism

On Friday, Bartolo unveiled a new cash incentive for tourists who book directly with local hotels. The scheme will see tourists offered up to €200 if they book a stay for at least three nights directly with any five, four or three-star hotels.

He said the Malta Tourism Authority had been allocated €3.5 million for the scheme that will impact some 35,000 tourists travelling to the island from June. 

The Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association welcomed the new schemes and said that it endorsed the decision to spread support across different categories of tourist accommodation, including boutique hotels.

Noel Farrugia, managing director of Britannia Services said the schemes are in the right direction and will help kick start tourism.

And Alan Arrigo, a member of the Chamber of Commerce’s tourism sector said: “The schemes are a positive development provided that they are directed to travellers who are genuinely interested in our destination rather than simply a discounted pricing scheme.”

“We are pleased to see the MTA has kept the scheme aimed at foreign tour operators and is looking forward to the announcement of schemes aimed at supporting other local operators such as language travel and meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hesitation on international travel could impact bookings

Last Monday, most hoteliers and travel agents were glued to the screen, watching Johnson provide updates on how the UK was to move forward by easing restrictions.

Many expected him to announce an update on international travel, but instead he sounded a word of caution, and gave little information on the resumption of non-essential travel.

Following his announcement, the UK Global Travel Taskforce on Friday announced new plans to resume international travel for Britons. Different countries will be rated green, amber or red on a number of factors, such as vaccination rates, infection rates and the prevalence of variants, among others.

So far, the taskforce has said it is still too early to say which countries will fall in each category, and a decision will be made later on whether May 17 target date can be met.

Camilleri Kamsky said that such cautious comments might ‘soften’ the demand of British tourists.

“The British market is crucial for Malta, more so if we want to have a fairly decent summer,” he said.

“His comments, or lack of, caused more uncertainty, and do not help in anyway when it comes to bookings,” said Noel Farrugia, managing director of Britannia Service.

Josef Sant from AX Hotels said that Johnson’s hesitancy might put off tourists from booking their holiday or else might result in bookings towards the end of 2021.

“We were all expecting the UK prime minister to give an indication, but despite the lack of commitment I don’t think this will stop people from booking,” he said.

“Once the UK does give a proper indication about international travel, we will then see a much more exponential increase in bookings.”

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