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Malta: Mini-Manhattan in the Mediterranean

May 3, 2017

Hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers are again flying to Malta. With record numbers of tourists, the economy is booming. That means a huge amount of building on the island. Some people are appalled.

Reiseziel Malta
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A.Reuther

Jackhammers, cement mixers and diggers drown out the sound of the sea. Housing blocks and skyscrapers rise into the blue skies. For a southern European country, Malta can tell an unusually successful success story at present. The economy is booming and every nook and cranny of the island mini-nation in the Mediterranean is being built up. "Malta is one of the fastest growing economies in Europe," writes the International Monetary Fund in a report. According to EU estimates, the economy is set to grow by 3.7 percent this year. In comparison, the statisticians expect growth of 1.6 percent for the entire EU. 

Reiseziel Malta
Valletta Marina Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J.Effner

The small Republic of Malta, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, is the only Mediterranean European Union member state that survived the financial crisis unscathed. The island has established itself as an international online gaming center and earns good money from sports betting. But tourism more than anything is contributing to the boom. In the past year almost two million tourists vacationed on the island, which is just under half the size of Munich and has fewer than 450,000 inhabitants. After the British and Italians, the third largest number of tourists comes from Germany: in 2016 that was 157,000 (a plus of 10 percent).

Reiseziel Malta
The Blue Lagoon off the island of Comino Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T.Schulze

In the port of Valletta, colossal cruise liners push their way into the city, disgorging their passengers, who stream into the center. "We've come to Malta regularly, says one tourist sitting in a café in the town center, "but now we don't want to anymore, because cruise tourism is ruining the island. People just pour into the city." Another reason for the onslaught of tourists is that traditional holiday destinations such as Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey are politically unstable. Malta, in contrast, is rich in cultural attractions as well as sun, sea and sand.   

Reiseziel Malta
Boats moored off the promenade with waterfront restaurants Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J.Effner

Next year the capital Valletta will be a European Capital of Culture. But the cost of the boom is high. At Malta's tourist information bureau in Frankfurt it's said that there are no complaints from vacationers about all the construction. "After Malta's entry into the EU in 2004, little by little, building projects were begun that also served to improve the infrastructure in general," says spokeswoman Stefanie Schröder. "That certainly may be unpleasant during the construction phase, but ultimately it benefits both local residents and tourists." 

Reiseziel Malta
View of Golden Bay in northern Malta Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T.Schulze

But conservationists are alarmed. Astrid Vella from the environmental and cultural heritage protection organization FAA Malta says that Malta needs to green spaces, not skyscrapers. Even the Maltese archbishop Charles Scicluna joined the debate, criticizing a tower block development as "a number of temples to Priapus that will line pockets with gold and ruin the view." Residents are exasperated because traffic breaks down every day and the infrustructure in mini-Manhatan can't cope with the boom.  

Reiseziel Malta
Valetta is the capital of MaltaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J.Effner

Most recently, a planned shopping, hotel and casino complex for the mega-rich caused a stir. One petition against overdevelopment essentially said that high-density building was suffocating the island. But there are also other aspects that don't necessarily show Malta only in the positive light that the government likes to emphasise. The country is considered a tax haven and has been called Monaco in the Mediterranean. The Greens in the European Parliament recently criticized the fact that companies on Malta can reduce their tax rate to a few percentage points. 

Annette Reuther (dpa)