A good spread of traveller types, source markets and seasons are the aims of most destinations, and Malta offers something of a masterclass in what’s possible, with a decade of impressive diversification.
A major factor is increased air access. As revealed at WTM London, Ryanair’s 62nd Malta route will serve Jordan’s capital Amman from April, around the time Qatar Airways launches a service from Doha. Malta currently has 94 routes in winter and up to 130 in summer and the new Middle East links create wider opportunities for connections to Asia and beyond.
“Before, we had great dependence on our core markets such as the UK and when they had a setback in their economy we suffered, so we learned to diversify,” says Malta Tourism Authority’s chief marketing officer Carlo Micallef.
The most promising growth markets for the islands now include the US (up more than 35% last year), Japan, Korea and South America, particularly Brazil and Colombia. Most traditional markets posted double-digit growth in 2017, Spain by more than 37%. Overall, Malta drew 2,314,600 visitors (including cruise overnighters), 16.4% up on the previous year.
“Malta has changed incredibly from being an island with three or four airlines to a dozen airlines operating flights each day. The biggest change has happened in the past four to five years,” says George Arrigo, director of Maltese DMC Oswald Arrigo. He adds: “I think it has become very diversified in the range of people; families with kids, middle-aged people and senior citizens, and it’s different people in different seasons.”
A more honed marketing campaign has helped shift perceptions. Malta, with sister islands Gozo and Comino, has 16th-century cities, megalithic sites and world-class diving, yet was once competing primarily for the fly-and-flop market. “In the past it was always general, ‘beautiful Malta’,” says Micallef.
A recent addition to the hotel scene, Urban Valley Resort & Spa, situated in Wied Ghollieqa nature reserve, drew business and leisure guests of varied ages in its first five months. Its sales and marketing manager Elena Micallef-Borg, who has been in tourism for 36 years, says: “Most guests we have now are interested in history, the outdoors and the other things Malta and Gozo have to offer. They are cultural people.”
A boon in Malta’s repositioning has been Valletta’s reign as European Capital of Culture 2018.
“The change in Valletta has been astonishing; nearly all the properties have been renovated. It has been very good as a catalyst for a lot of investment going into Valletta and it has helped to put Malta on the map in the media and in people’s minds,” says Micallef.
“Five or six years ago I used to leave the office at seven and Valletta was deserted. Now, it’s a vibrant, 24-hour-a-day city and I wish our office was still there!”
Among positive changes has been the conversion of several old family mansions into boutique hotels. “With this you can attract the empty-nesters [and other couples] that expect a certain quality of service and accommodation. It has helped position Valletta as a trendy city,” explains Micallef.
The boutique hotel trend happened organically but other developments behind the demographic shift have been incentivised.
Free music festival Isle of MTV is in its 13th year on Malta, having been invited by the tourism authority in order to attract younger tourists. The average age of the European music fans attending is 26 years, with the most common 17 years old. Lady Gaga, Rita Ora, Snoop Dogg and Paloma Faith have been among performers.
“Together with Malta Tourism Authority we are always pushing creative boundaries in the staging and music programming of the event,” says Russell Samuel, vice president, creative and integrated marketing for Viacom Velocity International, the company behind Isle of MTV.
“When we started out in Malta it was a straightforward live music event made for TV. Fast forward to now and it has become the biggest free outdoor live music festival in Europe – and across all platforms.”
Malta Music Week now precedes the festival. “We’ve aligned with the average length of our target audience’s holidays and provided further music experience and rationale for people to book a trip to Malta,” explains Samuel. More island locations are now showcased, while an impressive social strategy engages people at home.
Almost one in four MTV viewers have already booked a trip to Malta, up 77% since 2012. The Ministry of Tourism’s statistics meanwhile show Malta’s under-24 tourist segment has increased by 120% since Isle of MTV began and now accounts for 25% of annual arrivals. “Experiential tourism has been key to the diversification of Malta’s visitors,” says Samuel.
The latest big name tie-up, with Nickelodeon, will encourage families to key attractions on an island-wide character treasure hunt in April. Perhaps surprisingly for a heavily Catholic country, Malta has also been enjoying growing attention from LGBT travellers. Same-sex marriage was legalised in 2016 and Malta now tops the ILGA Rainbow Europe Index, which benchmarks 49 countries in terms of equality.
Its position at a geographical crossroads has helped Malta develop a live-and-let-live attitude, says Micallef. He adds: “We’re known already as a gay-friendly destination and we’re reaching out to that demographic through the right media.”
Another growing visitor niche has been football. Major teams from the Nordic countries, Russia, former Soviet republics, Germany and the Netherlands now use the islands as a winter base, bringing families and supporters with them. This has helped winter show the biggest percentage arrivals growth: 24% for January to March in 2017. “It’s good for hotels. In the past, summer months made up for the winter months, now they’re making profit all year round,” explains Micallef.
Thanks in part to Malta and Gozo’s well-preserved historic cities, numerous films and TV series have been shot on the islands, including Troy, Gladiator and Game of Thrones. The tourism benefit, says Micallef, has come not from the screen showcase but the word-of-mouth from stars.
“They upload photos of themselves on social media, they say they’re enjoying themselves, that Malta is not what they expected, and that really helps.” He adds: “Unfortunately, so far we haven’t had a movie that shows Malta for itself. It’s stood in for Venice, Greece, Lebanon, Troy…” However, that could be about to change, as the tourism authority is in talks with Netflix over a series starring a top actor and featuring the island in its own right.
Malta has a target of three million tourists for next year. With Brexit affecting its core UK market, Micallef admits this is ambitious, but he remains optimistic.
“To do this we need flight connectivity – and that’s in each of our markets; a good product – and we believe from surveys that the product by and large is very good; and we need to create even more events that get people engaged and encourage them.” He promises further event announcements before the year-end.
DMC director Arrigo is similarly positive. “Malta has come a long way in its diversity and has progressed very fast. We’ve got a very progressive approach and there’s a lot of optimism in the destination. Most of the people who work in tourism work from their hearts.”