Many had thought that 2021 would see the end of staycations, as locals would resume travelling abroad. However, the fact that the pandemic continues to affect overseas more severely than it does locally, is leading most Maltese to opt for a staycation.
Data published by the National Statistics Office show that while the third quarter of 2021 was much better than that of last year in terms of non-resident tourists, activity remains far below that of 2019. Activity for the first nine months of the year is only slightly better than what it was in 2020, as one has to remember that the first quarter of 2020 was relatively unaffected by COVID-19.
However when one looks at domestic tourism, the situation is completely different. In the first nine months of 2021, there were 181,563 instances of residents who opted to stay at least one night in a collective accommodation establishment. This was one tenth higher than in the same period of 2020, and nearly a quarter higher than in 2019. Moreover, Maltese residents who opted to spend their nights out, went for the higher end of the accommodation spectrum. Five star and four star hotels accounted for two-thirds in the rise of the number of domestic tourists.
Maltese residents who opted to spend their nights out, went for the higher end of the accommodation spectrum.
The numbers are more impressive when one looks at nights stayed. In fact, the average staycation in 2021 has been of 3 days as against 2 days in 2019. So besides the rise in the number of domestic tourists, hotels also benefitted from longer stays.
In the first three quarters of the year, nights stayed by domestic tourists exceeded half a million for the first time in history. This was 48% more than in the same period of 2019. Essentially, domestic tourism has increased by a quarter every year since the pandemic has struck.
Local staycations not just limited to Gozo
Some might think that the main beneficiaries must have been hotels in Gozo. Well, the data show that Gozitan establishments did quite well, but in reality the bulk of the rise in staycations has been in Maltese hotels. In fact, while in 2019, 23% of all hotel nights spent by domestic tourists were in Gozitan hotels, the share fell to 17% in 2021. The bulk of the rise in trips to Gozo was not towards hotels but rather to self-catering accommodation such as farmhouses.
That said, Gozo-based hotels are still better off than Maltese hotels, with their occupancy rate being 71% of their pre-pandemic level, as against 43% for Maltese hotels. Gozo has managed not just to gain higher domestic tourism activity, but foreign tourism towards it has also recovered more rapidly.
One has to wait and see whether the extraordinary rise of the Maltese staycation will dissipate once the pandemic comes under control. The two rounds of vouchers have played their part in driving this rise, though the increase in staycations during 2021 was stronger than in 2020 despite the fact that the amount of vouchers that could be spent at hotels was lower than in the previous year.
What is sure is that in the absence of domestic tourism, local hoteliers would have faced a much more signficant challenge than they had to face.