It is often other people who are tourists. The writer Evelyn Waugh once said: “Every Englishman abroad, until it is proved to the contrary, likes to consider himself a traveller and not a tourist.”

That was back in the 1930s but the word ‘tourist’ can still have a negative ring to it, especially related to mass or package tourism which suggests crowds of people and a dumbing-down of culture. Everyone wants to be considered as distinct from the masses.

Tourism has been one of the strong pillars of the Maltese economy for the last half a century, since the 1960s. Today, it provides 29 per cent of Malta’s gross domestic product, with over 1.6 million tourists each year.

Some of our leading hoteliers have been putting forward conflicting views on the role of ‘quality tourism,’ instead of mass tourism, as presented in the draft tourism policy which is currently out for public consultation.

When their discussion degenerates into the phrase ‘quality tourists’, they should be shown the yellow card. Defining a quality product is fine but applying this to people is hardly the same thing. Visitors might be classed as having different budgets, interests, cultures and education, but people are not high-quality or low-quality.

There seems to be an underlying mix-up about what quality tourism might be. To me, it is not really about a specific market but about products and service. It is not just about high spending power or expensive goods but applies across the board.

The Oxford Dictionary defines quality as a ‘degree or standard of excellence’. Establishing a standard is relative and requires comparisons to similar things.

People can be pleased with a three-star hotel or disappointed by a five-star, depending on their expectations and comparisons to other places.

The whole country must raise its game and constantly innovate and improve if it is to remain competitive in tourism, whether visitors are on a low or high budget. People nowadays are willing to travel far and wide to find good places to visit, and they exchange notes.

In judging their holiday and destination, they will not only consider the hotel and prices but also weigh up their experiences of restaurants, of visiting museums and temples, the countryside or the seaside. They will compare them to other places, whatever their budget.

There seems to be an underlying mix-up about what quality tourism might be

Quality is linked to everything, including beaches and bathing water, heritage sites, taxis and buses, architecture, cleanliness, as well as all services and the state of the urban environment in general. It goes far beyond the walls of five- or six-star establishments.

Improving quality should drive the entire tourism sector at all levels, as it should drive all other areas of the economy. Residents also stand to benefit, not only tourists.

Let’s not get stuck in the mentality of the old ‘quantity versus quality’ tug-of-war. Quality is not the opposite of quantity. There is no limit to improving quality, irrespective of numbers. Yet increasing the amount of tourists does have a limit. The size of this country can’t cope with more.

When my German grandmother first visited Malta in the 1960s at the start of the building boom, she had wryly commented that Sliema and St Julian’s “will be nice when they are ready”. Sadly, the urban landscape in these two prime tourism areas is still lined with cranes and construction sites, 50 years later.

Malta’s streets are congested with too many cars and inadequate public transport. If this gets any worse, the country might resemble cities like Mumbai or Rio de Janeiro where at times the traffic snarls into a gridlock. This does not help tourism, and neither does the government’s apparent disregard for the dwindling countryside and over-development in all areas.

The real elephant in the room is sustainability, and this should be a principal focus of any tourism policy. Malta’s size and infrastructure has its limits.

Our prime sites are already chock-a-block in the peak season, and aiming to increase visitor numbers at this period would be insane. The Blue Lagoon, for example, bursts at the seams daily in summer with crowds of people pouring off noisy boats offering day cruises, to be stacked in rows of deckchairs like sardines. This is the state of one of our most beautiful and scenic spots.

Deckchair and cruise boat operators want to rake in as much money as possible but is this sustainable tourism? How many more boats, deckchairs and people can squash into this bay? We only have one Blue Lagoon and it will not expand, so the number of visitors cannot grow either. Moreover, Comino is a Natura 2000 site and supposed to be protected for its ecology and properly managed.

“These tourists, heaven preserve us!” wrote the poet Wordsworth in 1799, and people venturing to the Blue Lagoon in August must know exactly what he meant. It is this type of critical scenario which convinces me that the tourism industry must explore ways to shift away from so-called mass tourism.

petracdingli@gmail.com

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