The peak season for tourism is over. It has been another good year from the perspective of those who believe that bigger numbers are all that matters. Before claiming credit for boosting tourism numbers, policymakers should challenge the notion that there is no other way to measure success in this industry.
The rise in tourism worldwide is attributable mainly to the phenomenon of low-cost travel, people’s propensity to travel rather than save, and the booming of vacation rental companies like Airbnb. Online fora that discuss the pros and cons of holiday destinations have the most significant influence on the decision-making process of prospective travellers. Formal marketing does matter, but it is dangerous to argue that our tourism is booming because of better formal marketing.
What matters is the added value that the industry achieves. We need to ask tough questions like: What is the cost of tourism on the country’s infrastructure? How are property prices affected by the boom in renting residential property to tourists? Is the hotel industry getting the return on investment that encourages them to upgrade their services? Is tourism affecting unduly the lives of locals in a densely populated island?
Talk about improving the quality of the tourist experience we offer is as old as the industry itself. Policymakers in the 1970s argued that we could no longer rely on the bucket-and-spade tourists from the UK who came in big numbers when package holidays were popular. More recently different administrations hatched new strategies based on cultural, medical and educational tourism. However, can we argue that we are today offering a better experience to those visitors who have more money to spend as long as they are offered a top-notch service?
Isn’t it time to begin a soul-searching exercise about how we can make our tourism industry more sustainable, not just on an economic level but also on a social level?
Anecdotal evidence is valuable in an attempt to establish whether we are indeed matching the expectations of the tourists with better spending power. I happened to pass by the entrance to Mdina a few days ago. There were hundreds of tourists probably from a cruise ship that happened to be visiting. Do we want our Silent City to become a bustling medina that one finds in some Arab cities in North Africa?
An Italian family I met at the airport as they were going back home told me how disappointed they were to go to the Blue Lagoon in Comino, only to discover they could not land on the island because of the congestion there was near the jetty. They also complained about how expensive the better restaurants have become and how rare it was to meet local restaurant staff who could be such useful promoters of our food culture.
We are not the only country experiencing over-tourism. There has been sand pilfering in Sardinia. Venice’s magnificent attractions are distorted by enormous cruise ships that berth in the most charming canals. Barcelona is having to cope with the hordes of visitors who throng the streets, making it almost impossible to move around.
Policymakers in countries that believe that over-tourism is imposing high costs on the locals’ well-being and the economy are reviewing their strategies. Barcelona is promoting responsible tourism that fits into the broader city plan. They are banning new hotels in the city centre, improving transport facilities, and controlling the tourism rental companies. There are no magical solutions at all. But there is the political conviction that double-figure increases in tourist number over the years is not sustainable.
It is an illusion to believe that niche quality tourism can coexist with mass tourism. In a small, overpopulated destination, they are mutually exclusive. We are still a mass tourist destination. Our sales are mainly generated through the online booking systems provided by low-cost airlines and rented residential accommodation like Airbnb.
Despite our wealth of cultural heritage, we do not have the appeal of Paris, Rome or Amsterdam. People will always want to visit Rome despite the filthiness that characterises certain parts of the city. Paris and Amsterdam will always attract more tourists than they need despite the high cost of holidaying in these cities.
Isn’t it time to begin a soul-searching exercise about how we can make our tourism industry more sustainable, not just on an economic level but also on a social level? Isn’t it time for our policymakers to breathe and plan?
Gauging our success not merely by noting tourism numbers, but also by measuring the economic and social impact that the industry is having on the island is the way forward.