By Lebawit Lily Girma for Skift - May 13, 2021
Malta remains optimistic in spite of its exclusion from the UK’s initial safe travel list last week. Herd immunity is under a week away and pent-up summer bookings signal a potential boon for the tiny archipelago amid fierce regional competition ahead.
With one of the highest Covid vaccination rates in Europe and in the world, Malta now projects reaching herd immunity by May 19. Over 60 percent of residents have been fully vaccinated thus far and on Wednesday, restaurants and bars reopened, albeit under limited schedules.
Its success in containing the pandemic meant that the archipelago in the Mediterranean expected to be included on the UK’s first round of green list destination last week, also as a result of ongoing talks and positive vaccination roll outs in both destinations. Its omission comes a blow to Malta’s tourism sector for at least another month. Ironically, when Malta first reopened in the summer 2020, the UK was also left off Malta’s list despite making up 30 percent of Malta’s tourism arrivals pre-pandemic.
Skift spoke to Johann Buttigieg, CEO of Visit Malta since late 2019, about the competitive tourism landscape ahead this summer as EU member countries reopen, the strategies in place for Malta’s rebound amid fierce competition, and any pent up demand Malta is experiencing as one of the most vaccinated destinations in Europe this year. Below is an edited version of the interview.
Skift: Malta Tourism Authority launched a recovery plan for the sector with a funding scheme worth $24.1 million (20 million euros) to support local tourism businesses. How will those funds be allocated?
Johann Buttigieg: The recovering plan was part of a wider plan that we issued a few months ago, which is the tourism strategy for the Maltese islands for 2021-2031. The strategy identified these first two years as the recovery period for the Covid situation.
Up to now we have budgeted, a recovery plan of 20 million [euros]; we have divided these in a number of schemes:
The individual traveler scheme — the tourist is getting 100 to 200 euros worth of services in the hotel, or as a deduction from his bill, for food and beverage and so on. We have over 3 million euros for that particular scheme.
The MICE industry — we understand that MICE will take off at a later stage, most probably it will be around September October and there we are providing 150 euro voucher for each delegate, redeemed by the organizer for any person who spends more than three days for that particular conference or event; the minimum expenditure has to be 800 euros.
Malta is famous for diving; a person can redeem a 100 euro voucher at a diving school;
English language students that spend 15-30 nights in Malta will be given an allowance of 10 euros per day in food and beverage.
Persons over 65 years of age and coming after October, we are offering the same amount — 10 euros per person per night for those spending up to 30 nights in Malta.
So we have schemes that will promote the immediate, which will take off from June, and others which take will take off from October.
Skift: Malta was recently in bilateral talks with the UK to allow mutual recognition of fully vaccinated travelers and from the two countries. But then the UK omitted Malta from its “green list” just a week ago. What was your reaction to this news and why do you think this happened given that Malta has a high vaccination rate?
Buttigieg: I cannot say that we were happy not to be on the list. Discussions are still ongoing with the UK; we understand the UK needed some more information that we have obviously provided. But the most important thing is that in the next upcoming list, Malta will be there.
We have managed to control Covid quite well. We should reach herd immunity by the 19th of May. Deaths have practically vanished and there are still some minor cases – today for example we had four cases – but hopefully by the first of June we will not have Covid cases. The most important thing is not if we have or if we are going to have, but we keep vigilant and remain as safe as possible.
We expect to have the final meeting with the UK by the end of May and by the first week of June, the UK would publish the new list.
Skift: What is your outlook for tourism in Malta this year — do you have any arrival projections and are you feeling optimistic about a rebound?
Buttigieg: I don’t really like to mention projections because there are so many uncertainties, there are so many conditions lying both within the EU and outside the EU and each one can vary a lot. So the most important thing is to give peace of mind to the travelers that will be flying to Malta.
From a prospective point of view, June will be a quiet month — people will still need to see that there is [alignment] with other countries because, obviously, nobody wants to go for a hotel for that holiday, and at the end of the holiday when he is returning to his country, he would have to quarantine or go for further tests and so on.
Completing the third week of June up to September, we are looking at quite an interesting summer. We keep in daily contact with our hoteliers, and there are good indications. There are hotels that have already received bookings which reach up to 60 percent and obviously, there are others that are still in the 20s. But the rate of bookings that we are receiving is astonishingly good.
Skift: Malta’s government said it will be issuing its own vaccine certificate by the end of May, ahead of the EU digital green certificate. Is that still on track?
Buttigieg: Malta has its own vaccination certificate, the system is compatible with the European system. As soon as a European system will have the passport launched, we will switch off ours and it would be incorporated within the European passport system. But also, we are currently undergoing a number of bilateral agreements with other countries, which are non-EU like the UK, Israel and so on.
For example, the UK has informed us that the digital certificates will not be available in the first weeks of June, so for the first weeks it will be paper-based, but then it’s really a step to digital certification. Malta has digital and paper as well.
Skift: Competition is likely to be very strong this summer as U.S. travelers return to Europe, but also as Europeans begin to return to popular EU destinations, such as Portugal, France, or Greece. How will you make Malta stand out, aside from your incentive scheme?
Buttigieg: We would market Malta as the place to be safe. It’s not just to be safe on Covid — Malta has one of the lowest criminality rates. So for us to be safe is one of the [highest] priorities in all aspects.
We need to ensure that any person that will travel to Malta is safe, will remain safe, and will go back to his country and actually be an ambassador for Malta and say, how much he liked and enjoyed it and the island.
Next year, we will have our first AI citizen, an artificial intelligence citizen, he will be the face of Malta – [it’s] something new. This summer, our campaign is actually “Feel free again” — we want to make people feel that they can travel again.
Our vaccination rates, we publish them quite often; as you might have seen, even in a number of advertising we always include our vaccination rates, our vaccination rate at the moment is 64 percent.
To tell you the truth, Malta is such a small island, we cannot compare our marketing budgets with those of Italy, Spain and so on, so we have to be remain realistic. Per capita, we’re spending much more than they are spending but obviously, we are quite confident that we will reap quite well our work.
Skift: You came from an environment and planning background and joined the tourism sector for the first time in late 2019, just before the pandemic brought the whole sector down. How would you describe your past first year in the tourism industry?
Buttigieg: Let’s say it wasn’t what I expected! I cannot complain, it is quite challenging. The first two months I was here to promote Malta, and then I was here to make sure that everybody leaves Malta, and then ensuring that we keep all the industry closed and assisting where necessary to help the industry. Government here in Malta has helped the industry quite a lot. Now we are starting again our marketing engines to reignite the tourism sector.
We have a fabulous team so on the whole, that ride was cushioned quite well.