In Tourism – small is beautiful too

Villa del Porto Kalkara

First published in 1973, Ernst Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful – economics as if people mattered has always presented a challenge to politicians and economic planners. It contrasts to, and in many instances it actually is, the direct antithesis of the “economies of scale” and as such it is often discarded by those who dream of quick results.

Schumacher, an economist by training, had one specific message: the promotion of people-centred economics. Our economics are profit-focused, with decisions being constantly made on profitability criteria, rather than on human needs. People should come before profits.

Human needs as well as environmental impact should be factored in at the drawing-board stage of all economic decisions. Reading through plans and strategies on the development of tourism in Malta over the years, one inevitably reaches the conclusion that these plans and strategies are focused on hotels, as if nothing else mattered. Tourism is, however, much more than hotels and the hotel industry.

It is only fairly recently that some thought is being given to boutique hotels and agri-tourism: alternative, small-scale tourism opportunities.  Yet much more needs to be done if we are to move along the path of sustainable tourism which, whilst being practically harmless environmentally, can be of considerable benefit not just to our economy but also to our families, in particular those in small communities.

Earlier this week, I was alerted by residents in Lija to an application submitted to MEPA [PA2822/15] to convert a large townhouse in a residential area into a boutique hotel. This proposed hotel would have nine bedrooms with ancillary facilities and it covers a total area of 1,110 square metres, including a garden. When finished, it could cater for a maximum of twenty guests.

Being small, such a boutique hotel would  fit in easily in any of our towns or villages. Its impact would be compatible with that generated by three or four families in the community. Being generally family-run helps considerably to give a human face to this tourism outlet as well as offering excellent service.

However the local residents are  worried about the compatibility of this development with the residential nature of the area. Their worries are not just about the impact of the hotel’s services but more on the possible spinoffs such as whether the bar and restaurant, as well as the swimming pool  – to be constructed in what is currently the garden – would be open to people who are  not actually staying in the hotel. The residents are worried about noise pollution well into the silent hours, the generation of increased traffic and subsequent parking problems – problems they associate with such spin-off activities.

The residents cannot be blamed for their concerns because no one has explained what the practical operational limits of boutique hotels will be – and this is because there are no MEPA guidelines on the subject. The various applications for the provision of boutique hotels that MEPA has processed in the recent past are considered within existing general policies. Likewise, perusal of the Malta Tourism Authority’s website does not reveal any guidelines to help prospective developers of boutique hotels navigate the relatively unchartered waters of such an activity in a residential area.

A number of local councils are similarly concerned because, although they understand and appreciate the benefits to the local economy of encouraging the use of large properties as boutique hotels they are apprehensive about the collateral damage to community life. Large townhouses as well as historical buildings in our towns and villages can be given a new life by being converted to boutique hotels but great care must be taken to ensure that this development is not driven by economics alone. It needs to be community driven and local councils in particular need to be partners in this drive to develop an untapped area of sustainable tourism.

If handled properly, it is potentially a win-win situation but the concerns of the residential communities must be addressed immediately. If this is done, tourism will take a gigantic step forward as it will develop a human face.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 23 August 2015

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