Tourism remains one of the most important economic activities for Malta. Top line figures show substantial growth. With low-cost travel becoming more popular, many predict the industry will continue to grow at least in turnover, if not profitability and sustainability.

Some argue we should not look a gift horse in the mouth. Low-cost air carriers have transformed the tourism industry in Europe with many now affording to travel two or three times a year to destinations that have responded to this boom by increasing accommodation capacity. Some destinations like Venice and Barcelona are beginning to worry about the increasing number of tourists and are thinking long-term in their strategic moves.

The Spanish city has r ecently passed legislation to freeze permits for new accommodation in the centre as locals complain they are being crowded out of the property market as rental charges escalate rapidly.

In a meeting of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, its president, Tony Zahra, while acknowledging the success in attracting more tourists, declared that overcrowding was becoming an issue. He let it be known that the association presented an eight-point plan to the tourism authorities that included a recommendation for a capacity assessment given that such an exercise was last carried out in 2001.

In a telephone interview on the Labour Party radio station, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat condescendingly stated that he “smiled” when he heard the association’s warning. Many hope the Prime Minister did not, in fact, snigger at the “overtourism” comment made by Mr Zahra. The Prime Minister may have decided to leave local politics at the end of this term of office but it will always be his responsibility to ensure economic strategies his government adopts will prove robust and sustainable for at least the next two decades.

Good corporate governance entails embedding sustainability in every business plan. In tourism, this responsibility is even more intense as it affects various stakeholders in the industry.

Despite the increase in the number of tourists in the last few years, many argue the tourism experience Malta is offering falls short of the qualities that will guarantee long-term success.

Many tourist areas remain unacceptably dirty, roads poorly maintained, beaches lack sufficient hygienic facilities and locally-trained staff are unwilling to consider a career in tourism because many operators prefer to employ low-skilled and low-paid foreign workers.

The locals are also important stakeholders. Undoubtedly, the creation of jobs in the tourism industry should not be taken for granted, even if it seems that many of these new jobs are being taken over by foreigners. But the pressures tourism is making on the country’s physical and social infrastructure are beginning to irritate many people, not just those residing in tourist areas.

Malta’s excessive cars problems are not getting any better. When thousands of tourists take to the road in hired cars and coaches, travelling by public or private transport becomes an even bigger hardship for all road users. Despite sounding facetious in his reactions to the hoteliers’ concerns, the Prime Minister promised to “face such problems and sort them out”.

Job creation is a primary objective of every government. But so is the management of the collateral adverse effects of overcrowding in an already densely-populated country.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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