The pandemic was a severe blow to outbound tourism. Last year, the number of Maltese visiting foreign countries for holiday purposes fell by 80%. Travel to Gozo also dipped, but to a much lesser extent. The number of vehicles crossing over to Gozo during the second half of 2020 was only 5% below that in the same period of 2019. This was a substantial improvement over the decline of 22% that had been observed in the first half of the year, when travel to Gozo was severely restricted.
In July 2020, the very low number of active COVID cases, combined with the launch of the voucher scheme, had even led to the number of vehicles crossing over to Gozo to exceed that of July 2019. This rebound was short-lived as from August 2020 figures dipped again.
In the first months of 2021 crossings of vehicles – one of the surest leading indicators of domestic tourism – continued to dip. Then from March onwards, though crossings were higher than 2020 they remained far below the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. However, a momentum was starting to build up.
As a result, in June 2021 the number of vehicles crossing to Gozo amounted to 161,141. This was not just 14% more than the amount that had crossed in June 2020. It was also 2% higher than the result achieved in June 2019, or the last June before the pandemic began. Thus, June 2021 is the month with the largest number of vehicles crossing between Malta and Gozo in history. This jump in domestic tourism was quicker than that in 2020, reflecting the earlier removal of restrictions this year and the quicker implementation of the voucher scheme thanks to the use of digital solutions.
The success in terms of passenger crossings is much less pronounced. The number of persons crossing during the second quarter of 2020 was nearly 60% higher than 2019, marking a rise of nearly a third of a million passengers (excluding those who used the fast ferry service). However due to the lack of foreign tourists, it remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
Nevertheless, these data show the great potential that domestic demand has to sustain livelihoods locally. It is no coincidence that the number of Gozitans registering for work has now fallen below the level in 2019, and is now at its lowest level in history. Before the pandemic the Maltese population spent €606 million on foreign travel, as against just over €40 million on domestic tourism. The spending of foreign tourists who stayed just in Gozo amounted to just €80 million, with some more revenue accruing from the €100 million spent by foreign tourists who stayed for part of their holiday in Gozo and the rest in Malta.
Even if just a third of the decline in outbound tourism flows instead to Gozo, the sister island would have a better income from tourism than it had pre-pandemic. Similarly, if hotels in Malta offer incentives to locals just like they had done in summer 2020, in conjunction to the voucher scheme, the redirection of outbound tourism towards staycations could offer good possibilities for operators in the sector.