Last updated: 10:30 PM ET, Wed May 13 2015

Malta's Calling

Maltese culture and history are seen as piquing the interest of American travelers

Vacation Agent | Destination & Tourism | James Ruggia

Malta's Calling

PHOTO: The Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa is a flagship of Maltese hospitality.

When Valetta, the capital of Malta, does its star turn as a European Capital of Culture in 2018, Maltese tourism officials hope it will get the message out to long-haul markets like the U.S. that the country has more than the beaches that its short-haul European travelers love so much.

European travelers make up most of the country’s 1.5 million annual arrivals compared to about 20,000 U.S. visitors. Last year, the Maltese Tourism Authority (MTA) invested in the U.S. market for the first time in more than a decade, appointing Michelle Buttigieg as its American representative with the mission of stimulating a market that offers several important prospects that match especially well with Maltese needs.

High-Yield Travelers
Americans would come to Malta for its culture and history rather than beaches; they’re more likely to travel off season; they’ll travel more widely around the country; they’re higher-yield travelers; and the establishment of an American partner for Air Malta would greatly help the embattled flag carrier return to profitability.

PHOTO: rated Malta as one of the easiest places for retirees to fit in overseas.

For Americans, Malta offers an authentic Mediterranean-lifestyle destination with strong appeals to those seeking new off-path places, especially for those interested in history, spirituality (New Age) and prehistoric sites.

Malta’s historic attractions are almost all the result of its location in the center of the Mediterranean. That’s what accounts for the country’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the world’s highest density of such sites. In 2015, about 35 cruise lines will call in Valetta and maybe more, thanks to the tensions in Tunisia, thus building awareness of the destination among American cruise visitors.

The MTA needs to build up awareness in the U.S. “Consumer awareness is very low and so is agent awareness,” says Buttigieg. “We don’t have the big budget to go after the mass-market tourist in the U.S., and anyway we get that [mass market business] from our European markets. In the U.S. we are looking for high-end travelers.” In order to educate both groups, the MTA began operating the Malta Specialist Program with Travel Agent Academy, a division of travAlliancemedia, the publisher of Vacation Agent. 

Historic & Cultural Attractions
Though Malta is on the edge of Europe geographically, it’s at the center of European history. Valletta’s existing 16th-century Renaissance façade was built by the Knights of Saint John when the Crusades were long over. By then the struggle was between Ottoman Istanbul and Christian Rome. The memory of the knights is enshrined in Valetta’s Co-Cathedral of Saint John, a Baroque structure that houses two works by Italian master Michelangelo Caravaggio: “Saint Jerome Writing” and the “Beheading of Saint John.”

PHOTO: The interior of Valetta’s magnificent Co-Cathedral has many secrets, including two Caravaggio masterworks.

The Palace of the Grandmasters in Valetta has never relinquished its role as the seat of power in the country, serving as the British Governor’s palace and now as home to Malta’s House of Representatives and the office of the country’s president. (A new parliament building designed by the great architect Renzo Piano is currently being erected.)

The arms collection in the palace’s Armory Room preserves the weapons that were used in the 1565 Ottoman siege of Malta. The Inquisitor’s Palace was originally opened for the Grand Inquisitor in 1574.

Malta’s original capital, Mdina, is located in the center of the island, and was possibly first fortified by the Phoenicians around 700 B.C. After crossing a bridge over Mdina’s medieval moat, you enter a world without automobiles, where lamplight illuminates a fine tranquility in this ancient city. Outside Mdina, you can explore St. Paul’s Catacombs, a labyrinth of underground Roman cemeteries that were last used in the 4th century.

Because of its many mysterious Stone and Bronze Age sites, Malta can almost be thought of as a European answer to Easter Island. Malta’s oldest set of human remains is actually out on the island of Gozo. (Malta, Gozo and Comino are the three largest islands in the Maltese archipelago.)

The Xaghra Stone Circle is about 6,100 years old. Ggantija, also on Gozo, includes two towering prehistoric temples. The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a Neolithic burial chamber carved from sandstone with stone tools about 5,600 years ago. Mnadjra overlooks the islet of Fifla and during the equinox (March 20 and Sept. 22), the sun illuminates the temple.

When the cave on Gozo known as Ghar Dalam was opened, the remains of such animals as dwarf elephants and a lost species of hippopotamus were found.

A Retreat On Gozo
Gozo, Malta’s second largest island, is home to many resorts that serve a busy summer season, but in the spring and the fall it makes a wonderful retreat as Maltese weather remains warm into winter, though it can be rainy. The gentleness of winter played a role in Malta’s selection by as one of the easiest places for retirees to fit in overseas.

The magazine stated, “Malta blends the best of southern European graciousness with one of the best qualities of life to be found in Europe. First-world standards of service and infrastructure, a wealth of historical and architectural treasures (including nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites), world-class golf courses and the sparkling Mediterranean, all in a country one-tenth the size of Rhode Island.”

Home of Corinthia Hotels
Corinthia Hotels and Air Malta are two of the largest stakeholders in Malta’s tourism marketing. While Corinthia’s 10 hotels can be found in destinations from London to Khartoum, the company began as a restaurant across from Malta’s presidential palace, and that restaurant lives on as the fine-dining room of the Malta Corinthia Palace Hotel.

Malta has a nice inventory of fine hotels, but this hotel is the country’s flagship, the place where dignitaries and other high-end visitors stay when they’re doing business with the government in Valetta.

As the national flag carrier, Air Malta is vital to the identity of the country and to its sovereignty. Maltese pride took a hit when Ryanair’s chief commercial officer, David O’Brien, was widely quoted as saying, “In the aviation game, if you’re not growing, you’re in trouble and if you’re not reducing your costs, you’re also in trouble. I don’t see Air Malta doing either.” The Times of Malta called the comment “arrogant,” in a story written to rally the airline’s labor force and leadership. The ghost of the recently collapsed Cyprus Airways is haunting the Maltese and providing a real sense of urgency for Air Malta, because Cyprus and its former flag carrier faced a similar complex of challenges. As a European regional airline, Air Malta is overly exposed to competition from low-cost carriers like Ryanair, because those carriers are very popular with the short-haul, sun-and-fun tourists who fly into Malta from European gateways.

“We were losing money and we need to cut costs,” said Joseph Galea, Air Malta’s deputy chief commercial officer. In recent months things have improved somewhat, mostly because of the drop in oil prices, but a longer-term solution could be found if Air Malta can strike a deal with a U.S. carrier. “We are looking to create an alliance with an American carrier that serves key U.S. cities. For us, the U.S. is all about potential. It means a market that isn’t so focused on July and August” as is Air Malta’s traffic from European markets, said Galea.

Though Europe is Air Malta’s core market, an American carrier would also create a more seamless journey from the U.S. into Malta. That would greatly increase the meager 22,000 U.S. annual arrivals the island nation is getting now.

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the May 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.