Are the Maltese travelling abroad again? Yes, but no.

In the first nine months of 2021, total outbound tourist trips by Malta residents numbered nearly 180,000, 7% more than 2020. Nights stayed rose by 53% to nearly 2 million nights, while tourism spending was nearly 30% higher than a year earlier.

On the face of it, these data would seem to suggest that the Maltese are travelling again. However, when one digs deeper, a different picture emerges.

Of the 180,000 “Maltese tourists”, one notes that only 74,000 travelled for leisure. This means that six in ten of those travelling were either visiting relatives and friends abroad or were travelling for medical or professional reasons.

The number of those visiting relatives and friends amounted to nearly 73,000, nearly 69% of the pre-pandemic level. For holidaymakers, we are still at the 23% mark. In fact, at 74,000, those going abroad for a holiday in 2021 are less than the 83,000 that had gone on a foreign holiday in 2020.

Out of the 180,000 Maltese tourists,

only 74,000 travelled for leisure.

Those travelling from Malta during 2021 were mostly foreign residents who took the opportunity to return to their home country briefly. In fact, the age categories showing an increase were below 45 years of age, while other age categories showed a decline for the second consecutive year. That said, there has been a clear rebound in the number of those travelling by sea, which is now at 78% of pre-pandemic level. Maltese travellers appear to have focused on nearby Sicily rather than taking a flight abroad.

Effect on domestic spending

What is the economic significance of this reluctance of the Maltese to travel? In other areas, the Maltese appear to have returned to their pre-pandemic behaviour. Take for instance Google mobility data on movements towards restaurants and shops. These data suggest not just a near complete return to normal. They even show a higher-than-expected concurrence of consumption.

Part of the explanation for this boom in internal consumption lies in the fact that whereas in the first nine months of 2019 Maltese residents spent 446 million on trips abroad, in the same period of 2021 they only spent 151 million.

This meant that Maltese households had nearly 300 million to spare for domestic spending or to boost their savings. The significance of this is seen when one considers that before the pandemic, Maltese residents spent just €39 million every year on visits to Gozo. This shows that even if Maltese residents now spend one-seventh of their savings on trips to Gozo, the revenue for the Gozitan operators would double.

When one looks at how much foreign tourists are spending on their trips to Malta, one notices that on a per night basis we are at €105 level, close to the pre-pandemic level. By contrast, if one looks at the per night spend of Maltese tourists abroad, we have gone down to €81 per night as against €133 per night before the pandemic.

This shows that while the young are starting to travel again, it appears that the older cohorts who tend to spend the most are still unwilling to travel like before.

Given that this has coincided with a surge in domestic tourism, it could be that this signifies some change in preferences. It remains to be seen whether this change will prove to be temporary or whether it will be permanent.

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