The Malta Tourism Authority has announced that, during 2019, the Maltese Islands received a record 2.75 million tourists, an impressive jump from the 2010 figure of 1.33 million.
We are told that the expenditure on the part of tourists visiting Malta during 2019 exceeded €2.2 billion, surpassing the previous record set in 2018.
The numbers are quite impressive but the basic question to ask, however, goes beyond impressive numbers. Is this sustainable?
Some years back, a study carried out by MTA concluded that a tourist visiting the Maltese islands makes use of 50 per cent more resources that locals. I originally came across this information when going through one of the State of the Environment Reports. In brief, this signifies an additional per capita impact on all resources that we use – not just water and electricity, but also waste generated, transport, land developed and much more.
The statistics published by the National Statistics Office give positive news regarding inbound tourism to Malta. They do not, however, explain in any way the impacts generated as a result, which is something beyond the scope of statistics. It is not, however, appropriate to sing the praises with numbers and ignore these impacts. Some weeks ago, I discussed the issue of over-tourism in these pages. I posed the question as to whether the economic impact of tourism justifies its social and environmental impacts. The carrying capacity of our islands – that is, the number of tourists with which our resources can reasonably cope – is of fundamental importance. A tourism policy that does not adequately consider the carrying capacity of the Maltese Islands is fundamentally flawed.
Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli is apparently thinking on the same wavelength. When discussing the 2019 tourism results, she announced that a draft tourism policy leading us up to 2025, will be based on the principles of sustainable tourism “while building on achievements of the past years”.
Can tourism ever be sustainable? The term “sustainability”, as most of us are by now aware, is a much-abused word and it is often used out of context in an effort to try and justify anything.
In order to gauge the contribution of tourism to Maltese society, we should not only consider the earnings derived there from but should also factor in the costs – not just financial ones but also social and environmental costs.
To the 50 per cent excess consumption of resources per capita one must add not only the overdevelopment of land generated by tourism but also the contribution to climate change by the aviation industry. This is certainly not negligible and we only ignore it at our peril. We will undoubtedly hear much more about this as the debate on the EU Green Deal – piloted by EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans – unfolds over the coming weeks and months. We will then understand much better what policy-makers assume when they use the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development”.
The proposed tourism vision for the years ahead will be myopic if it does not factor in environmental and social impacts. Policy makers should look beyond the financial bottom-line.
Way back in 2008, Catalan anthropologist Manoel Delgado had coined the term “turistofobia” which term conveys a mixture of repudiation, mistrust and contempt for tourists. A tourism policy should address these negative impacts of tourism by ensuring that it is restrained within the carrying capacity of the Maltese Islands. This would be a reasonable first step towards a tourism that is less unsustainable than at present.
published on The Independent on Sunday : 9 February 2020