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Tourism in the Concrete Age

Dust-choked Qui-Si-Sana.

You know what tourists don’t like?

Paying for an increasingly miserable experience.

No, really. Someone should tell Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi because his government is destroying the industry just like a contractor destroys the building next door — by eroding the foundations until it all falls down in a sudden collapse.

On the surface, things look okay. We read that tourism arrivals keep going up year after year, but they’re spending less. Low-cost airlines make travel widely available but they’re also helping to drive this downward trend.

Competing for the low end of the market is the wrong long term strategy for an island of limited size because it relies on volume. Cram in more low-cost tourists, make more money. Malta can’t compete in that arena.

So what’s the plan?

I’ve heard the Minister brag about how Malta is going to attract high-end tourists who spend a lot of money. That’s the answer — rake more cash out of these foreigners by having them pay more while delivering less and less.

Let me tell you what’s wrong with this strategy. And I won’t even charge taxpayers a consulting fee for my professional advice.

You see, I’ve been writing for Canada’s largest travel magazine for the past 15 years. I have a pretty good idea what travellers look for in a destination, and what writers look for in a story.

Mizzi should know that high-end tourists aren’t flying down on Ryanair for a low-cost beach vacation. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to stay at a high-end resort, you’ll notice a couple of things about them: silence and space. People with money pay for privacy. Quiet. Isolation.

Malta will have a difficult time targeting that luxury market no matter how many 5-star boutique hotels they build in Valletta because those tourists still have to go outside. And what’s beyond the front door is not a 5-star experience.

But Malta does have something you won’t find in any other country, and especially not packed into such a small area.

There are so many layers of civilisation on the island, from Stone Age temples that predate the Egyptian pyramids to Bronze Age sites, Roman villas and fortifications from the time of the Knights. There’s even Second World War history in the many pillboxes and forts. When it comes to history, Malta’s unbeatable. High-end tourists will pay for that.

Eminent historians, archaeologists and writers lead dedicated small group luxury tours to places like Egypt, Jordan, Central Asia and Byzantine Italy, guiding visitors who want to explore traces of the past with a university lecturer rather than a 30-minute tour — and they pay a great deal of money for it. They travel in comfort, staying at the best hotels and eating at the best restaurants.

Malta could compete on that tourism stage and offer something completely unique. But only if there’s something to look at when these tourists arrive.

The way things are headed, there won’t be anything left to see. Malta survived the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, but ‘l-Aqwa Żmien’ is now driving a car without brakes headlong into the Concrete Age, and there doesn’t seem to be any plan beyond making a quick buck.

If you think that hideous hodgepodge of buildings constructed in the tackiest Dubai or Las Vegas-style looks bad now, just give them five or 10 years and imagine how they’ll look with the usual complete lack of maintenance: caked in dust, rusted by the saltwater air, and faded by the strong island sun.

I suppose you could always pretend them away with photoshop and tight cropping.

But despite Konrad Mizzi’s fixation with money, Malta won’t be able to pay for positive tourism coverage forever. And yes, right now they are paying for it. Everyone does.

Those articles the government loves to promote, the ones that name Malta as a top 10 tourist destination or as one of the world’s most desirable countries to live in for expats, are paid for by your tax money. Sites like GlobeNewswire charge several hundred euro per press release to distribute these announcements, which are written by the Malta Tourism Authority and then picked up by various media outlets.

Those glossy magazine stories you see in Conde Nast, National Geographic and the New York Times are paid for, too. They’re written by freelance travel writers who visit Malta on sponsored press trips. The Malta Tourism Authority puts them up in nice hotels and shows them around the island in exchange for positive coverage.

A lot of these writers will go just about anywhere for a free trip. But there’s a limit even to that.

How long before tourists realise there are much better and far less crowded beaches elsewhere in the Mediterranean, beaches without the stench of fish farm slime?

How long before the history buffs realise that those traces of the past they came in search of have been swallowed up by some developer’s vision of his bank account, and by some politician’s greed?

Overcrowding has become intolerable. There’s no space, and no escape from the constant noise: shouting voices, the blare of televisions from open windows, roaring cars, the insistent horn of vendors shattering early morning, and the dull monotony of summer petards driving all coherent thought from one’s head.

The air tastes like car exhaust. It is choked with black fumes and construction dust, and there are cranes everywhere.

Tourism may have been temporarily displaced by passport sales and gaming, but it still makes up 27% of Malta’s GDP when “add on” spending like food and drink is taken into account, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

I wonder how long it will take the bottom to drop out of the industry?

Then again, there is a niche market in post-collapse tourism. The radiation exclusion zone of Chernobyl attracts a certain number of visitors each year. As does the abandoned island of Gunkanjima, once the most densely populated place on the planet, and now crumbling away into post-industrial oblivion off Nagasaki.

I do hope Mizzi’s government has a plan for bringing in money after the European Union puts a stop to Malta’s passport peddling, and after the gaming industry is driven away by one too many money laundering scandals.

But I wouldn’t count on tourism. Malta’s past is vanishing under piles of substandard concrete, and not even gullible foreigners will pay to see that.

‘We are not enemies of Malta’

Konrad Mizzi

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