For the past forty years, and more, we have been promoting these islands as the Mecca for sun worshippers in the Meditteranean playground of Europe. The idea of sun and sea has taken over every aspect of the tourism industry – walk into a shop selling souveniers, guide books and tourist paraphernalia and you will be struck by an array of products that could very easily be linked to the sea, sand and sun; the shops around many of our seaside resorts display beach umbrellas, scuba diving gear, snorkels and plastic lilos and dinghies of every colour, shape and description. Even the colours of the National Tourism Authority are depicted as blue, red and yellow! Yes, we most definitely can be perceived as a sun and sea destination, but forty years of this constant image projection cannot be reversed that easily. We cannot simply switch off one brand and turn on the other like we would with a display sign or even a television remote control. The potential is there, we have already got the infrastructure in place to build a diverse product and strengthen the tourism product with added value – all we need is to be uniquely creative and traditional.
In the past, we have had the most annoying habit of copying – if an entrepreneur invests in a pizzeria with a new concept, one year down the line, that same concept is replicated over and over with the consequence that the uniqueness and characteristics of that first attempt would be well used and certainly well worn. This happens with everything around us – count the number of pastizzerias; the number of mobile telephone outlets; the number of takeaways and you will see what I mean. The novelty runs dry very soon on these islands. Yet, the irony is, that we have so many original and unique characteristics and traditions in every town and village that each locality can boast of some form of living history – a legend, an important event, a distinguished person and even a unique landscape – but we forget these and think that by copying imported ideas we are being creative and unique. The irony of all this, is that this foreign creativity is short-lived because it lacks the originality it probably enjoyed in its first setting. So what do we need to do to induce that unique creativity? The first thing we need to work on is the potential that there is through the local councils.
Government has built an infrastructure that could be the basis of an interesting and unique attraction for these islands based on the diversity of our living history. At the centre of this infrastructural organisation are the 68 local councils set up sixteen years ago to decentralise authority and decision making away from Castille Place in Valletta. By appointing democratically elected volunteers from within each locality it has been possible to boost a certain amount of civic pride and identity into every town and village; today each locality has created different events and attractions and generated an interest in some long forgotten story or legend. It has also helped resurrect some of the hundreds of wartime shelters that have remained closed and forgotten for over fifty years. These are, most definitely, the first steps in creating that unique creativity but it needs another step – the organisation of a well synchronised programme of local events to create diversity as well as more attractiveness.
In the last two weeks, we have had the Medieval Mdina Festival and the Strawberry Festival in Mgarr – certainly very good ideas with a lot of creativity and innovation. No doubt, as summer draws near, we will see many more outdoor activities in various localities. This proves one very important point: we have a rich and diverse product that can be developed for every town and village. Now imagine a scenario whereby a festival over a weekend, every fortnight is organised at five or six localities in Malta and Gozo – each with a unique characteristic – rural, baroque, historical, literary, musical or even religious; add to this a good dose of events organised over a week long period such as Christmas Fairs that include traditional and unique activities; musico-literary programmes at a national level that will become highlights for every visitor’s calendar. By creating this diversity think of the effect this will have on the reduction of traffic and crowds at these events, making the experience far more pleasurable for those who visit them and want to enjoy the real characteristic of the place.
By working together to create these unique activities we can provide that added value which will make a visit to the islands not just another sun and sea holiday but more of an experience that is clearly different to other destinations such as Spain, Tunisia and Turkey, principally because it is based on events which are home grown instead of ideas that are imported and transplanted rather crudely into the Maltese and Gozitan landscape. Unique creativity may then prove far more profitable and long term if it is used as part of the marketing process.