The number of applications for outdoor catering areas shot up last year as tables and chairs continue to encroach on pavements and promenades in tourist zones, a trend partly fuelled by the pandemic.

Figures from the Planning Authority show that, in 2021, it received 104 requests for permits from bars, cafes and restaurants wishing to extend their premises outdoors. It approved 49, turned down 13 and 42 are still pending.

In 2020, the regulator received 63 applications and approved 51 and, in 2019, the same figures were 68 received and 52 approved.

Another 33 applications for outdoor seating have so far been received this year and the authority is still processing them. 

Even countries that do not have weather ideal for sitting outside are picking up the trend- Tony Zahra, MHRA

As summer approaches, residents of tourist hotspots will begin to see a proliferation of outdoor furniture in pedestrian areas and, sometimes, even in parking spaces.

The boom did not start now however. Back in 2017, it was reported that an average one new permit every two days was being issued for new outdoor catering areas.

At the time, the Commissioner for Environment and Planning had said they were not only blocking pedestrian access but also increasing health risks as food was being consumed n an atmosphere thick with dust and exhaust fumes.

Five years on, his concerns have fallen on deaf ears.

Valletta gets most applications

According to the figures, over the last four years, Valletta has seen the most planning applications received for outdoor catering areas, at 38. It was followed by St Paul’s Bay, at 26 and St Julian’s, at 25. Sliema is another locality which has seen plenty of public spaces being taken up by chairs and tables.

The head of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, Tony Zahra, said the increase in the demand for outdoor seating was a growing global trend.

“Even countries that do not have weather ideal for sitting outside are picking up the trend,” he said.

The pandemic, he added, had simply “accelerated” the demand as seating capacities inside restaurants and cafes were severely curtailed due to social distancing rules.

The Malta Tourism Authority then gave catering establishments temporary permission to set up outdoor tables and chairs if they requested it.

“The demand was there but COVID pushed it, as diners began to sit outside more often, even if they were not so keen to do so before the pandemic,” Zahra said.

'The trend won't go away'

Planning and enforcement, he added, were key to ensuring outdoor seating areas did not become a burden.

“The trend is not going away, so we must plan to manage the demand for outdoor seating and ensure that commuters can still use the pavements.”

The secretary of the Association of Catering Establishments, Matthew Pace, echoed the views.

He said seaside locations enticed many customers to dine outdoors while guests who wished to smoke were not restricted.

Some diners even preferred to wait for an outdoor table rather than sitting indoors, he noted.

“Nothing beats the outdoor fresh air and the Maltese sunshine for both locals and tourists,” Pace said.

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