The ever-elusive concept of tourism sustainability

We have, many times, heard the term “tourism sustainability”, yet over the years concrete actions to achieve this objective were few and far between, if any at all. Despite this, the term sustainability was a constant feature in Malta’s Tourism Policy since the first policy was published for the years 2007-2013, and the full awareness of many individuals was obtained either through their studies, their business or their role within Governments’ structures. As a result, Malta as a collective, has ended up paying only lip service to the concept of sustainability and so far, this objective has remained as elusive as ever.

What is sustainability?

The term sustainability was first coined in 1987 by the Bruntland Commission which was tasked by the UN to come up with a report to encourage countries to work together to reduce humanity’s impact on natural resources.

The term Sustainable Tourism Development concept refers to:

“Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities” UNWTO

Malta Tourism

Tourism was only identified as a major industry in the mid-1950s as Malta realised it needed other industrial sectors to supplement the effects of downsizing by the British following the Second World War. Rightly so, the Maltese authorities at the time identified tourism as a potential foreign exchange earner and an industry that could employ thousands. At the same time preparations were made by means of planning for the future thus identifying all the most important characteristics at the time such as the sun and sea and our cultural/historical heritage.

Yet, it is one thing to plan and another to execute. And more often than not the need to make a quick buck, especially when confronted with a dire economic situation due to a number of global issues and coupled with the eventual departure of the British, mass tourism became the preferred option over the cultural conscious tourism. Consequently, Malta became caught up in this cycle, because as tourism numbers increased, so did employment opportunities, thereby losing any room for manoeuvre to sustain the jobs that were being created. Malta, therefore, became dependent on tour operators for quite some time and it is only in the last decade that we have experienced a shift in the tourist demographic that we host.

Unfortunately, we have grown accustomed to measuring tourism success by the number of visitors or by their expenditures, yet in the process we have failed to analyse the consequences of the ever-growing number of visitors on the infrastructure and on the tourist experience itself. Failure in tackling these aspects can indeed affect Malta’s competitiveness.

According to Ritchie & Crouch, 2003, as quoted by Mangion, 2020, “What makes a tourism destination truly competitive is its ability to increase tourism expenditure, to increasingly attract visitors while providing them with satisfying, memorable experiences, and to do so in a profitable way, while enhancing the well-being of destination residents and preserving the natural capital of the destination for future generations”.

Meanwhile, according to Dwyer et al., 2020 quoted again by Mangion, competitive advantage of a tourism industry is achieved when the host destination achieves superiority in terms of the tourism experience offered to its guests over its competitor destinations.

In Malta’s case our competitors are across the whole Mediterranean region, including Spain, Italy, Greece, Croatia and Cyprus. These are the places that we have to keep in mind when we analyse our tourism industry.

However, whereas up to some years back tourism was the major contributor to development in Malta, it might not be the case any longer. Therefore, it has become futile to address tourism sustainability without addressing the core concept of sustainable development of the Maltese Islands.

What do we need?

In recent years, tourism growth was affecting in a way or another, other areas including infrastructure, community fabric etc. We have been aware of the carrying capacity issues since the mid-2000s. For every tourist type there is a different carrying capacity, as the environmentally conscious individual might be more concerned with environmental issues than other individuals.

The book titled Tourism and the Maltese Islands, edited by two Maltese academics, George Cassar and Marie Avellino, cites a striking statistic, which is the number of visitors that visit Mdina in a year. In his chapter, Cassar writes that according to other studies, in 2015 Mdina received around 1.4 million visitors in an area of 0.9km2. Similarly, one can only deduce that tourists are concentrated in the Bugibba/Sliema areas, with increasing numbers opting for B&Bs that are sprouting up across the island.

However, what is now affecting tourism is the overall development of the island. Not just construction, but also urban planning.

Tourism has provided jobs to thousands of people for decades. Malta’s development as a country depended on it. It is time to reflect on how to make Malta an attractive destination that provides a unique experience to visitors.

Firstly, success should not be solely measured by the number of visitors. Increasing numbers have their toll on the whole country and its infrastructure and on the tourist experience as well.

Secondly, in its recent tourism plan, the Opposition proposed new quality shopping malls in Bugibba and St Paul’s Bay and a ferry from Gozo to Bahar ic-Caghaq, but these do not solve anything. Efforts should be geared towards creating minidestinations, by drafting tourism management plans, for areas like Marsascala, Bugibba, the Three Cities and Gozo. Such plans would take into consideration the actual community fabric coupled with the existing resources available in these areas. Such an initiative cannot be another half-baked effort as we have experienced many times over the past decades. These areas should offer amenities for all seasons and for all visitors whilst meeting their expectations.

Thirdly, as identified by Mangion, “Government’s regulatory and policymaking role in environmental sustainability evidently affects destination competitiveness – lack of it features immediately and negatively affects destination competitiveness”. There has to be a coordinating body across all government departments and agencies concerned to analyse and implement measures that would turn our urban areas, including the areas identified in this article, into minidestinations, coupled with a huge infrastructure investment drive to turn these localities into pleasant areas for locals and visitors alike.

Fourthly, Malta can never achieve sustainability if the local attitude towards foreigners and visitors is not managed properly and kept in check.

And finally, we need to ask one pertinent question. The Knights of St. John left us an unparalleled heritage as did other colonisers of the Maltese Islands. What legacy are we leaving behind us for future generations?

This should be our guiding principle.

The Government Tourism Strategy “Rethink, Recover, Revitalise, 2021-2030”, does hit the right chords when it comes to the issue of sustainability. It acknowledges that visitor numbers need to be managed, that tourism sustainability will not be achieved “if its tourism priorities are led principally by incremental bed stock”.

Failure to heed the concerns identified in our own tourism strategy will negatively affect tourism development in Malta for generations to come.

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stephan cassar
stephan cassar
2 years ago

great article.