Malta started 2018 with its capital city of Valletta being named the year’s European Capital of Culture, while the country as a whole was mentioned in over 25 lists of top destinations for 2018. But these honors represent just a few steps in the country’s long road to ever-growing popularity among tourists, especially in the North American market.
After closing for nearly 12 years, the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) reopened its office in 2014 and began a process that Michelle Buttigieg, MTA representative for North America, credits for much of the country’s current success in tourism.
“Malta is a place that people are curious about,” Buttigieg says. “They’ve exhausted Italy and other countries around the basin so it’s definitely somewhere new to go.”
Armed with this message in mind, MTA embarked on a mission to increase its presence in the travel industry by joining USTOA, becoming a Virtuoso destination, working with ASTA to create itineraries that included stops in Malta, and more. Buttigieg reports that the hard work is paying off. In the last four years since MTA reopened, the number of North American visitors to Malta has nearly doubled.
“People ask if we’re new, but no, we’re 7,000 years old,” Buttigieg says of the new visitors to Malta. She also notes, however, that as a popular cruise destination, many of the travelers now visiting Malta as a land destination are actually repeat visitors who had their interest in the country piqued while on a cruise stop, most likely in Valletta. Thirteen American cruise lines currently make stops in Malta, and Americans make up one-sixth of all cruise passengers to the country, but where the most growth can be seen is in land-only visitors.
MTA expects that North American visitor numbers will hit at least 50,000 by the end of 2018, and while that may seem like a small number, it’s a market that travel advisors should not underestimate. With over two million tourists a year, “Americans make up only 2 percent of the total pie, but it’s a lucrative market,” Buttigieg explains. Most Americans traveling to Malta are in the luxury travel market, and they tend to stay longer, spend more money, stay in five-star properties, and hire private tours and drivers.
In addition to increased the presence in the travel industry, Buttigieg also points to increased connectivity with major airlines, safety, good weather year-round, and English as an official language as some of the other reasons as to why more travelers are flocking to Malta. Buttigieg also describes Malta as the perfect destination for a variety of niche travelers including wellness-focused visitors, history buffs, active travelers, divers, hikers and more.
“There’s a little bit of everything in a smaller area, and that’s an advantage because you’re doing a lot without spending a lot of time traveling from one place to another,” she says.
Some activities Buttigieg recommends are visiting some of the world’s oldest prehistoric temples, diving or snorkeling near shipwrecks, visiting some of the 380 churches and cathedrals, exploring Comino island and its blue lagoons, and participating in one of the many festivals going on throughout the year. There’s something for everyone, “it just depends what you’re into and what your budget is,” Buttigieg says.
Malta’s biggest advantage, however, is the element of surprise.
“The nice thing about Malta is that Americans don’t know what to expect. If you go to Rome, you know what to expect becuase you’ve heard about it so much, and you know what you want to see,” Buttigieg says. “In Malta, you don’t know what to expect, but once people get here, everyone is blown away, and I think that’s an advantage because it leaves a positive impact.”
When asked for words of advice for travel advisors looking to book their clients on a trip to Malta, Buttigieg says “you can sell Malta as a two point destination.” Although in the last two years there has been an increase in itineraries selling Malta as a stand alone destination, she notes that it may be easier for advisors to sell Malta this way. “You’re going to Italy so why not go to Malta and and see two countries with two different cultures?”
Buttigieg recommends a minimum 4-night stay to get a taste of Malta, but says that a 7- to 10-night visit is ideal to truly experience and get a feel for all three islands that make up the country. April to June and September to November are the best months to visit when the weather is not too hot or rainy. With festivals going on all year, Buttigieg also recommends checking the events calendar on the MTA website to coincide your client’s visit with a celebration that might interest them like the fireworks festival in May or MTV’s music festival in July.