In 2020 the European Commission reached a landmark agreement with four collaborative economy platforms – Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia and Tripadvisor – on data sharing. The first batch of data, relating to 2019, have been published by Eurostat. The implications for Malta are striking.
If one takes all of Malta as one city, these platforms report that the stays booked in Malta were nearly equal to those in Venice. This puts Malta as the 19th most popular EU city for these platforms. By contrast these 4 websites sold less than 2.5 million nights in Amsterdam, a million less than in Malta. In Palermo they sold just 1.1 million nights, or less than a third than in Malta.
Between 2018 and 2019, guest nights sold in Malta using these platforms rose from 2.9 million to 3.5 million, an increase of 20%. This was five times the percentage rise in nights stayed by tourists, such that these 4 platforms accounted for 76% of the rise in tourist stays in 2019.
Before discussing further the new data, it makes sense to review what we currently know about tourist stays in Malta. According to the NSO, in 2019 Malta had 2.8 million international tourists, who spent 19.3 million nights here. Of these, about 623,000 stayed in rented accommodation (not in hotels) for some 6.2 million nights. We also had over 237,000 domestic tourists, of which over 101,000 stayed in rented accommodation for some 315,000 nights.
A study by the Central Bank in 2019 indicated that in May 2019 there were nearly 8,800 listings available for short-lets advertised on Airbnb located in Malta. The study had found that the average price per listing was €80 per night. Based on the new Eurostat data and the potential bed night availability estimated in this study, the occupancy rate stands at 44%, which is well below the 67% occupancy seen in Maltese hotels, but only just below the 46% occupancy observed in Gozitan hotels. This implies that the revenue earned by property owners could reach some €70 million, effectively one seventh of total tourist spending on accommodation.
Between 2018 and 2019, guest nights sold in Malta using these platforms rose from 2.9 million to 3.5 million, an increase of 20%.
The new data published by Eurostat indicate that in 2019 about 205,000 international tourists and 11,000 domestic tourists used Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia or Tripadvisor to stay in Malta. International tourists spent 3.4 million nights, while domestic tourists stayed 135,000 nights. This would suggest that the share of the 4 collaborative platforms in terms of domestic tourism not staying in hotels stood at 43%, and their share out of all our domestic tourism market is 18%. On the other hand, for international tourists about 55% of nights stayed by tourists in rented accommodation appears to have been booked via these online platforms. However, the share differs greatly by season, with the strongest share 62% in the second quarter.
An interesting fact that emerges from the Eurostat release is that Malta has the highest number of guest nights per stay amongst all countries. Tourists who book via these online platforms tend to stay 16 guest nights per stay. This is more than twice the stay of such tourists in Iceland. While in Croatia nearly two in three such stays were in July and August, in Malta the share of these peak months was less than half that, at just under one third. That said, stays booked through online platforms in Malta are much more seasonal than those in hotels (as the latter only have less than a quarter of all stays in July and August).
Gozitan properties accounted for just 14% of all stays booked via these platforms. Of all Maltese who stayed in rented accommodation in Gozo, only 28% of stays appear to have been booked using these 4 platforms, showing that word of mouth and more traditional booking methods are more common in this market. As for international tourists who did not stay in Gozitan hotels, these online platforms appear to account for at least around half of all stays.
Of all the nights booked through these platforms, one in six was from the UK, or 611,000 nights. The second largest number of stays, 474,000, was by French tourists, while Italians accounted for 366,000 nights. While in absolute terms, the UK is the largest source, the importance of online platforms (14%) is the least pronounced for this market. By contrast out of all French tourists, nearly 27% stayed in accommodation booked using these portals. For the US market, the platforms form nearly a third of stays.
The new Eurostat data confirm the extraordinary rise of online platforms in our tourism market. While this success story has the potential to keep our tourism sector vibrant and dynamic, and possibly also spreads the benefits of tourism more than when most tourists stayed in hotels, it does also present challenges. In many countries, a rise in properties advertised on these platforms has resulted in less housing available for other short-term rentals, and in higher rents. Moreover, hotel operators complain that rented accommodation enjoys unfair advantages such as operating with lower standards and with hosts possibly engaging in tax avoidance.
With the return of tourism post-COVID, it will become ever more important to strike a right balance in this new niche, not stifling growth but ensuring that it operates in a regulated manner and that its evolution ties in with the overall tourism strategy adopted by our country.