Sunday 13 June 2021

Malta vs Cyprus: Comparisons are odious, but inevitable

This column first appeared in Malta Today

This is not a “let’s bash Malta” op-ed piece. It is a cautionary tale, for those who want to listen. 

I know every country has its intrinsic attraction and touristic value, and that, as the saying goes, comparisons are odious. There are times, however, when comparisons are inevitable. A brief getaway to Cyprus once again confirmed how we are getting it all, so very wrong.

Like Malta, Cyprus is steeped in both history as well as fun things to do, offering something for all types of tourists: from those who want to embark on a cultural tour and take in the scenic landscapes, to those who are just after sea, sun, karaoke bars, sports bars and nightclubs.  Water parks and luna parks make it ideal for those travelling with children.  

As a visitor though, what struck me the most was that the seaside tourist resorts are a classic example of how Malta could be, if the authorities just stopped pandering to big business and closing their eyes to illegalities, at the expense of us all.  Aiya Napa is a larger, cleaner, more organised, more well-planned version of Bugibba and Qawra, and very reminiscent of the way I remember them as a teenager and up to my mid-20s.  There is no chaos, no haphazard building, no dog poo or black and organic bags left to rot in the sun for hours.  Each hotel is painted white, giving the area a hegemony which is pleasant to the eye, and built in a way which was clearly planned, rather than floors and expansions added on as afterthoughts over the years. There was not a single construction site or crane to be seen. 

Every morning, swarms of cleaners from all the hotels are busy cleaning the outside of each establishment, sweeping and washing the driveway and the pavements.  Every catering outlet had a large skip outside for its rubbish.  

Traffic is kept to a minimum because once people park, they basically go everywhere on foot or hire scooters, bicycles, quad bikes or beach buggies. Cycling lanes are everywhere and the buses are cheap and easy to use.  Since all the beaches and amenities are within walking distance, you only need to hire a car to explore other parts of the island.  

After our own snarling traffic and parking nightmares, this was like someone had teleported me into a futuristic world (or time travelled me back to the past, depending on how one looks at it) where everything ran smoothly and there was no stress.  Of course, there were areas packed with people, but you could easily get away from the crowds if you wished.  In Malta, we have reached the point that you can only get away from the masses by staying in your own home.  

So how does Cyprus manage to do it?  Obviously, it is a much larger country with much more land, and enough space for everything to be more spread out; suffice to say that there are 400 miles of coastline alone. It was when I looked at the tourism figures that it started to make sense: there were 4 million tourists in 2018. Compare that to minuscule Malta with 2.6 million tourists for the same year.  So basically, we are getting more than half the tourists, but the country is nowhere half the size of Cyprus.  To be exact, Cyprus is 29 times bigger than Malta.  Population-wise there are also considerable discrepancies.  Malta’s population stands at around half a million while Cyprus stands at almost 2 million.  The population density in Cyprus is 130 per Km2.  Malta has 1376 people per Km2.

Are you still wondering why our country has become suffocating, literally crawling with people and cars?  Frankly, I amazed we have not yet started to turn on each other. 

But mostly I cannot fathom what the Government is thinking with its tourism strategy and other decisions which are adversely affecting the market: from the over-construction to the deliberate overpopulation.  If it is setting out to ruthlessly kill its own product, then douze points, it is on the right track.

Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi was recently quoted by Malta Today as saying: “This is why we want to have the best infrastructure and high-level environments for Malta to keep going forward. In Mandragg, for example, or the three cities, the potential is enormous and we want to heavily regenerate these areas to attract more tourists.” 

I had to do a double take at ‘best infrastructure and high-level environments’”.  Is he living in the same country as I am?  Maybe he is leading a very sheltered life, but what I see around me are the antithesis of these two factors.  As for wanting more tourists, what is the point of more when the island has reached its maximum limit, as can be clearly seen every time you leave the house?  Public transport is still not efficient and reliable, forcing visitors to rent a car, adding to the already congested roads.

I think we have to stop living in the fantasy we have concocted for ourselves that Malta as a tourist destination has things to offer which other countries don’t.  Other  Mediterranean islands like Cyprus are a classic example that sun, sea and history are not our exclusive domain. It is cleaner, the white sandy beaches are more plentiful and just as beautiful, the sea is just as clear.  More importantly, it is cheaper. At no time were we scammed or ripped off because we were tourists. Every beach you go to, sunbeds and umbrellas are regulated at 2.50 Euro each. The much lower prices, whether for water sports, in supermarkets to eating out, is something which cannot fail to strike you.  We are quickly pricing ourselves out of the tourism industry and yet we keep jacking up our prices because well, you know, greed.

The unruly, unregulated and in many cases ugly over-development, which has led to the shipping in of foreign workers specifically to work on these major projects, who are being crammed into crowded accommodation at exorbitant rates…all this is going to be our downfall. If the ordinary man in the street, who is well-travelled and can make the comparisons can see it, why can’t the Prime Minister and his Cabinet?  If everywhere I go, and on every online thread, I hear and read complaints that there are “too many foreigners” and that the Maltese are being quickly outnumbered, surely our politicians are also hearing the same complaints?   It seems they have completely lost touch with what the nation is feeling because they are safely ensconced in their seat of power for years to come, so keeping their ears to the ground no longer matters.

It is true that our economy is better than that of Cyprus, and that our unemployment is low, but if anyone thinks this (questionable) ‘booming economy’ is not coming at a cost they are being very short-sighted.  In many cases, all these supermarkets, cafes, restaurants and bars are able to thrive because an influx of desperate people who have come here as economic migrants for work, are willing to do these low-skilled, badly-paid jobs. A recent FB thread in which people were loudly complaining that you cannot find any Maltese waiters, hotel staff or cashiers any more was simply missing the point: if all these foreign workers had to leave, many businesses would just close down. 

The local population, like the island itself, is finite. There are only so many Maltese people, and only so much land, to go around. 

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