Julian Zarb | Wednesday, 02 December 2009

Tourism, niches or opportunities?

Julian Zarb

We speak about our tourism marketing as if it were simply a matter of promotion or publicity. In effect, this is only the final part of a long process that includes product development, creativity and innovation. Another term we often use in determining tourism markets includes the concept of “niches”. Niche Marketing is an alternative to a destination’s mainstream market and is meant to supplement the core business with additional, and perhaps, more perennial commercial activity. I would suggest, and i am going to try and support this suggestion throughout this short article, that niche marketing for a destination with the carrying capacity such as the Maltese Islands, needs to be considered as an experience rather than a specific marketing focus targeting specialists or enthusiasts in a given field or “niche”.
Gozo seems to be the island we are associating with “niche marketing” strategies and the Gozitans certainly seem to be full of new and, to some degree, good ideas in this regard but are we perhaps missing one simple issue? We still seem to believe that our destination attracts, what one would term, as a mass market and that by creating niches we can “pigeon hole” all our visitors under very neat and clinical headings.....cyclists, hikers, backpackers, historians, language students...the list could be endless. The truth is that we have been attracting 1.1million tourists every year for the past ten years and our last carrying capacity report had stipulated a maximum figure of 1.5 million in 2000. To many destinations this figure is already a niche market and these islands certainly have the potential to attract that amount of visitors who are discerning and really want to be here rather than the visitor who just ‘happens’ to be here.
First of all, let us look at demographics and size: this is the ideal destination if one wants to sample Mediterranean (particularly the Maltese and Gozitan unique blend of this diverse region). Where else could a cyclist visit open garigue, medieval villages and walled towns in such close proximity? Where else can one enjoy this intercultural experience as well as the pleasure of a secluded beach onto the blue Med?
The experience for any visitor should also include the participation in local traditional events – be they religious or social and the authentic food and beverages around village cores that have survived the infrastructural developments over time.
The idea of sport events such as diving, sailing, rock climbing and abseiling can be enjoyed here as long as they respect the vulnerability of the local environment.
This is certainly a destination that can attract a visitor with a number of interests but we need to have the proper infrastructure to create an attractiveness and uniqueness which is interesting and hospitable. The scenarios that I mentioned above could certainly be the promotion for any idyllic Mediterranean holiday but it depends on a collective effort by all the stakeholders to maintain that uniqueness. We cannot promote niches in a destination that is, essentially, a niche market in itself! Each experience should be studied carefully and its authenticity and uniqueness measured to ensure that the lustre does not wear off with constant use!
We can learn from our past mistakes. During the 1970’s we became obsessed with the idea of sun and sea on these islands and developed a close relationship with tour operators and group travel carriers...we know what the effect of this strategy was today, so we need to think carefully about developing “niches” that could, eventually, prove as unsustainable as those sun and sea holidays thirty years ago! On the contrary, we need to work on developing these islands as unique destinations for visitors to enjoy the authentic and unique experiences based on social, environmental and cultural factors which we have inherited throughout the centuries and millennia!


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02 December 2009


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