Three new low-cost airlines will be operating to Malta from March, amid ambitious targets of a four to five per cent increase in arrivals over a record 2007.

The news comes days after British Airways and Easyjet announced they will be operating between Malta and London from March, signalling a ten per cent increase in seat capacity on the all-important UK route.

"It's not too soon to say we're going to try and make 2008 an even better year," Tourism Minister Francis Zammit Dimech told The Sunday Times.

Spanish budget airline Vueling will be servicing the Madrid to Malta route three times a week; Italian airline Volare four times weekly; and airline will be flying from Malta to Oslo three times a week.

British Airways will operate a daily service to London Gatwick from March 30. GB Airways, which operated British Airways flights to Malta, has been sold to giant low-cost carrier Easyjet, which is also starting a 10-flights-a-week service to Malta from its base in Gatwick.

Though it is a budget airline, the minister confirmed that no subsidies will be provided to Easyjet since it has assumed the slots previously operated by GB Airways.

Malta Tourism Authority chairman Sam Mifsud said that British Airways was making a welcome return after the success of GB Airways, which was flying to Malta with an impressive 95 per cent capacity.

The MTA's strategy has been to spread arrivals throughout the shoulder months. National Statistics Office figures show a 22 per cent increase in October and some 15 per cent in November over the same months last year. All things remaining equal, December should also register a healthy increase over last year, with airline passenger movements showing an increase of 11 per cent.

It is therefore a foregone conclusion that 2007 will beat the previous record year of 2000 when over 1.2 million tourists visited the island. The biggest growth came from Ireland, which registered a whopping increase of 87 per cent over last year (thanks to the introduction of a Ryanair service), followed by the UK with 13 per cent.

Dr Zammit Dimech said the Government's strategy has focused on the need to increase seat capacity by introducing budget airlines and maintaining the excellent relationship with national airlines.

Advertising has also been beefed up in important markets like the UK - from last week a series of adverts went on air on four major British channels, including Sky News.

"We need to keep Malta exciting and it's important to continue attracting events to keep us in the news," the minister said.

Malta is mirroring international trends - while individual travellers who seek a quick, short break are on the increase, tour operator traffic was down, he explained.

While increased competition has meant that Air Malta has suffered financially on its UK routes, Dr Zammit Dimech said the airline had nevertheless increased volume.

Mr Mifsud said that discussions were underway with Easyjet with a view to introducing new routes to destinations like Geneva, Basle, Madrid and Belfast. In this case, the Government is expected to provide some form of financial assistance.

"We're also changing the perception of Malta in the UK. It's no longer a destination where your granny goes, as evidenced by the younger average age of travellers."

Many have argued that the Government should have started assisting budget carriers a few years ago when tourism was on the decline. Dr Zammit Dimech is diplomatic in his reply when asked whether there are any regrets:

"We made sure we took our time to invest wisely and to provide financial assistance for under-served routes. We also had to wait for the green light from the European Commission... and we needed to make sure that this growth did not come at the expense of Air Malta."

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