European Union presidency Malta hosted a leaders’ summit earlier this month, and sunny news shots of capital Valletta were a timely reminder of the destination’s warm climate and historic attractions. In fact Malta and neighbours Gozo and Comino are flying high, with UK demand booming.
“It’s a bit of a problem really,” admits Peter Vella, Malta Tourism Authority UK and Ireland director, “because, according to market research firm GfK’s data, we have bookings piling in but we don’t necessarily have enough capacity to service demand.”
May to December sales for the destination are already up 28% and, by value, winter bookings (Malta temperatures hover around 16C in December and January) are up 43% on 2016, partly boosted by the exchange rate. Capacity meanwhile has grown just “a few per cent”.
Air Malta pulls its less profitable Manchester service at the end of April but Giovanni Costa, UK and Ireland market manager, stresses: “The UK travel trade is pivotal to our success and operating up to 22 departures from London is testament to that, added to weekly departures from Birmingham and Bristol this summer. Expectations for 2017 remain positive and our trade partners are predicting another record year.” The airline is assisted by Flight Directors on UK trade sales.
Vella says no-frills carriers have somewhat compensated on the Manchester route but he is in talks with carriers about expanding overall Malta airlift.
In addition cruise is growing. In the third quarter of 2016 106 ships called at Malta, up from 102 in 2015 and this year P&O’s Oceania is Valletta-based, running week-long itineraries east and west, stopping at Gozo.
Accommodation development is also positive. “Because the islands have had a number of good years back-to-back the government has given hotels permission to expand and add extra floors… so some product that was quite tired has had a refurb that has raised standards,” says Belleair director David Green.
The historic luxury Phoenicia Hotel near Valletta will shortly reopen following major refurbishment and expansion. Ramla Bay Resort will offer an extra 100 apartments that can be divided to create 200 rooms and the Intercontinental in St Julian’s has added three floors.
Boutique hotels however are the newest trend. “Valletta is a World Heritage centre so you can’t just plonk a five-star 400-room hotel in it,” explains Vella. “Boutique hotels in 16th-century palazzos that used to belong to the Knights of St John are opening. I saw four recently and was knocked out by them. Some have spa facilities built into wells underground and they’re extremely atmospheric.” Newcomers include SU29, Palazzo Consiglia and Ursulino in Valletta, and Locanda la Gelsomina in Birgu.
Operators report no negative effect from the introduction of a modest tourist tax, payable at hotels, of €0.50 per adult per night, capped at €5.00 per person per stay. The money is being used, says Vella, to keep tourist areas “clean and safe” including extra policing.
Valletta will be European City of Culture in 2018 and historic Victoria, capital of sister island Gozo, has just completed extensive refurbishment and added a visitor centre. City breaks from all markets have already increased “quite dramatically” and stays of three nights and under now comprise 15% of visits. A London Underground campaign has helped pushed the market here in the UK.
Besides attractions such as St John’s Co-cathedral’s jaw-dropping interior and the Lascaris War Rooms under Valletta, a strong line-up of events fuel short breaks, including the free annual Isle of MTV concert that’s been headlined by Lady Gaga and will-i-am. Belleair’s Green recommends agents use the Visit Malta website events section: “It helps them add a bit of value… customers do want to do things there; it’s not a drop and flop holiday.”
In fact 40% of Belleair’s Malta customers choose B&B so they are not tied to their hotels. “It’s a fantastic island to explore. It’s left-hand drive and the public bus network is €21 for a week’s pass,” says Green. Operators with escorted Malta tours include Titan, Saga and Riviera Travel.
Value, however seems to be Malta’s main attraction. “The prices in resorts are very good because it’s in line with the local economy to cater for the local markets as well,” says Green. “Between 60% and 65% of our customers book four-star now. Three-star is virtually off the map.” Couples are Belleair’s largest Malta market and retired clients take extended winter stays but Green says the family share is growing: “More and more properties are building facilities for kids.”
Bugibba, St Julian’s, then Valletta are Belleair’s most popular resorts and sleepy Gozo works well in a twin-centre, says Green. “If it’s sold right by agents, clients will love it [Gozo]; it’s a real escape from it all and easy to get to by ferry.”
Sunspot is another Malta specialist while Tui and various online travel agents are also big for the island but, Vella says, it’s Jet2holidays that is “growing rapidly”: “We’ll see by the end of 2017 whether they’re the biggest player or not.”
Jet2holidays only introduced Malta in 2015. “Our package holiday offering to this Mediterranean haven has gone from strength to strength and we now boast 52 properties across Malta and Gozo with flights from five UK destinations,” says a spokesperson.
Lowcostholidays was big for Malta, not only from the UK, but Vella says the gap it left has been filled. Hotel occupancy April-June 2016 was 89%.
LGBT operator Out Of Office is a Malta newcomer. Perhaps surprisingly for a Catholic country, in 2016 Malta topped the ILGA rainbow chart of LGBT-friendly Europe. Diving is another niche.
The islands boast “bucket-list dives” such as the Blue Hole and Cathedral around Comino and Gozo plus World War Two ship and aircraft wrecks.
The UK remains Malta’s largest market with 30% of arrivals; more than the next three (Italy, Germany and France) put together but Vella says its share is “being eroded”.
Even the US is getting in on the act with Lonely Planet’s US edition tipping Gozo as “number one secret destination for 2017”. It seems it’s best not to be complacent.