Tourism recognitions from organisations like UNESCO and Trip Advisor continue to propel Malta’s economy, something that would have surprised my great-grandfather, Enrico Mallia. Had he been told 150 years ago that his homeland would become a Mediterranean tourism hotspot, he would have choked on his minestrone!
Here’s how I imagine our conversation.
Talking With Enrico
“What are tourists?” he would have asked, “Do you mean invaders, pirates, brigands, Turks and Moors, or maybe French, Russian or British soldiers?”
“Enrico, my dear great-granddad”, I would have explained. “Nowadays, ordinary people from around the world travel to visit and appreciate other countries, not to invade them. We call these visitors ‘tourists’ and they travel for leisure and to enjoy the wonderful things countries like ours have to offer”.
“Wonderful things”? he’d furrow his brows. “Forts, soldiers and cannons? I do not need to travel to see them. I can see these things right here and at the same time we can defend ourselves”.
“Dear great-grandfather”, I would pat him on his shoulder. “Times have changed. Yes, the world still has military conflicts and sometimes we need forts, soldiers and armaments. But we have opened our borders to people curious about our history, paintings, artwork, architecture, beaches and natural wonders.’
Maybe he would scoff at the idea. Or maybe he’d wonder aloud…
“Where do these people get the money to travel? In my day it was only the rich who travelled to see the world. For most others, the only world they saw was making sure there was enough daily bread for their family tomorrow”.
I would sigh and nod. The world is so different today.
“Things have changed, my dear great-granddad, and I hope they keep changing for the better”.
Tourism Grows in Malta
Malta’s first ventures into tourism after gaining independence in 1964 were based on its breadth of prehistoric sites and antiquities, loads of sunshine and turquoise beaches, and the return of British servicemen who had once been stationed in Malta and yearned to return with their families to revive and relive old memories.
Over the years, sites and antiquities gained more visibility as the Internet proliferated Malta’s extensive and varied history and people worldwide became aware of the country’s beauty and beaches. The steady rise in visitor numbers encouraged wholesale development, with hotels mushrooming around the islands, gradually transforming Malta and Gozo into fun-in-the-sun leisure destinations set in the blueness of the Mediterranean Sea.
With the advent of Mediterranean cruise liners, Valletta’s Grand Harbour became a port of call where thousands of passengers descend to take whirlwind tours of Malta and return to the ship determined to plan future holidays to the splendid islands. An increasing number of annual concerts have also paid rich tourism dividends to Malta’s tourism coffers. As most Maltese are bilingual in Maltese and English, and often trilingual in the added use of Italian, communication is generally easy and effortless for visitors, adding to Malta’s appeal as a tourist destination.
Above all, however, it is Malta’s lengthy and ancient history that still proves to be the country’s biggest tourist attraction, something that has earned museums, ancient sites and even a whole city impressive certificates of recognition from prestigious organizations.
In my imagination, I continue to dialogue with my great-grandfather so I can tell him about UNESCO and Heritage Malta.
Heritage Malta and UNESCO
I am certain his first remark would be, “What on earth is UNESCO, some kind of military alliance?”
I would try my best to explain UNESCO as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Created in 1946, the agency originally rebuilt schools, libraries, and museums destroyed in Europe during World War II. Today, UNESCO awards leaders in the fields of education and science as well as works to improve the educational, cultural, and economic development of the most impoverished regions of the world.
At the mention of Heritage Malta, my dear great-grandfather’s eyes would probably swirl with doubt and he would mutter, “I can only guess it is something invented by Government to look back on what we have been through”.
He would not be wrong, but I would explain more. “Heritage Malta is an agency for museums, conservation practice and cultural heritage, created in 2002 to maintain constant care and renovation of our country’s vast and magnificent cultural and historic riches. That it does remarkable and important work”.
I would list a few of Malta’s great accolades that tourists come from all over to see, in hopes of impressing him too.
“In 1980,” I would say, “Three familiar locations in Malta were inscribed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites: the City of Valetta, the Megalithic Temples, and Hal Saflieni Hypogeum.”
Once again, I imagine my great-grandfather shaking his head dubiously. “We knew of these places but hardly gave them any importance”, he would say.
“How could you have known?” I would comfort him.
He might add, “But why would anyone outside of Malta possibly care or want to know more about them?”
I’d remind him that Valletta has so many significant and historic sites that it could take days for a full tour of them all. Or that the Megalithic Temples are some of the oldest freestanding structures in the world. And I’d remind him that the remarkable underground burial complex of Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a testimony to a civilization that has disappeared.
He fill with pride or perhaps he’d wave his hand at nothing, brushing away the thought and the rapid change.
“In my day, my priority was having my gun and teaching my children to shoot and defend themselves.”
I’d shrug my shoulders, and remind him again that times have changed. Then to lighten the mood, I’d tell him something that would really make him collapse into laughter, that in recent years even the Maltese bread roll ftira and its unique preparation was recognised by UNESCO.
“Rubbish”! he would gasp.
I would leave the conversation there. I’d leave the explanations about TripAdvisor or TripExpert for another day.
TripAdvisor and TripExpert
But maybe then I would tell my great-grandfather that several Heritage Malta sites and museums have also been recognized with Certificates of Excellence from TripAdvisor, one of three prestigious awards bestowing bragging rights on hotels, restaurants, and attractions. As well, the Experts’ Choice Award and Best of Malta Award from TripExpert, which recognises businesses that have been consistently rated as outstanding by professional reviewers, have been given to:
- Fort St Elmo
- The National War Museum
- The National Archaeology Museum
- The Grandmasters’ Palace
- St Paul’s Catacombs
- The Hypogeum at Ħal Saflieni
- The prehistoric temples at Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra and Ġgantija
The Experts’ Choice recognises the comments of well-known publications as travel guides, reviews and newspapers. Annually the awards are based on the responses of 1.5 million professional travellers. Less than 2 percent of attractions worldwide receive this award.
I would have to explain to him that the world succumbed to a deadly pandemic and that for two years COVID-19, as the virus was called, took its toll on tourism in Malta, dealing it a significant body blow. But visitors came back strong. I would tell him that by his year’s end, Malta is expected to top 2.5 million arrivals. It’s a staggering number.
My great-grandfather, I imagine, would quietly take another spoonful of his minestrone soup and shake his head in disbelief.
BeSeeingYou In: Malta and Gozo
Good To Know: Visiting historical sites can be done all0year round and and tours can be organised.
WOW! Factor: The sites offer astounding insight into human and world history.
TIP: Select your interest priorities and plan well; very, very much to visit
“The devil has no milk.”
An expression of exasperation that means when the situation is already bad, it gets even worse because the Devil intervenes to continue complicating matters.