Tourists are staying longer and spending more

Despite a significant decrease in the number of tourists visiting Malta in the first seven months of this year, trends are showing that tourists arriving in Malta are staying for a longer period and spending more than the average before the pandemic.

The latest data issued by the National Statistics Office show that while the number of inbound tourists for the first seven months of 2021 was 38% below that in the same period of 2020, total nights spent was down by just 6%. Moreover, tourism expenditure was down by just 4%.

The average length of stay of those fewer tourists who visited Malta this year was much longer than in previous years. In 2019, the average length of stay of tourists was 6.8 nights. Now it is 10.3 nights. This is about one and a half times longer. If we look at spending, we see that per capita expenditure now stands at €946, as against €737 pre-pandemic.

The highest spending tourists in 2019 were those from the US, with a per capita spend of €1,134. This year the average US tourist spent €1,641. This is nearly 50% higher.

Similar percentage increases were observed for UK, Swiss, Irish, Dutch and Belgian tourists. The average French tourist in 2021 spent €931, as against €753 in 2019. At the same time, the average Italian tourist now spends €712, as against €563 in the year before the pandemic.

In 2019, the average length of stay of tourists was 6.8 nights. Now it is 10.3 nights.

These promising figures fit in well with the argument made by many during the pandemic that Malta should focus less on the numbers and more on the quality.

Before COVID, Malta was growing at a very accelerated rate. In just 4 years before the pandemic struck tourist arrivals had risen by one million visitors. It had previously taken 27 years for tourism arrivals to rise by one million.

Like in many other countries dependent on tourism, before the pandemic a discussion had started with many arguing whether ever-rising tourism was sustainable. The new tourism – based on low-cost airlines and Airbnb – was viewed somewhat differently from previous tourism waves which had mostly been catered for in hotels. Many were asking whether the increased number of tourists were leaving that much money, or whether their impact on the country’s environment and infrastructure overweighted the revenue generated.

When COVID-19 resulted in a near complete shutdown of international travel, many woke up again to the importance of tourism for our economy and society. Besides the employment impact on hotels, the great losses to transport firms, there was also a decline in the extra income that many Maltese and Gozitans earn because of tourism. And yet, the consensus seems to have converged to a stance that while tourism needed to be saved, we should try to change it to make it more sustainable.

Many argue that we should focus less on the number of tourists, and more on the cost-benefit aspect of higher tourism flows. For instance, when there was a spike in COVID numbers which was attributed to English Language students, there was quite a controversy, with some arguing whether Government should have offered subsidies for these students to visit Malta. Do such visitors create enough value added to justify subsidies being offered? Are we still as a society, too fixated with the headline tourist arrival numbers?

Based on the NSO data, if per capita spending continues to exceed by so much the 2019 level, then we would need just 20% less tourists to reach the same tourism revenue as we had before the pandemic. Basically we could have half a million less tourists and still earn the same revenue.

This shows how important it is, if we are really serious about achieving sustainable tourism, to focus on attracting the right kind of tourists. Leaner tourism numbers do not necessarily mean less income for our country.

It is clear from this year’s statistics, that this strategy has potential. It will be crucial that in coming months, policymakers remain focused on this strategy and do not use as their benchmark of success bringing back the number of tourist arrivals to what it was pre-pandemic. Getting higher value added tourists offers a much better perspective.

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