Malta is often referred to as a ‘sun and sea’ destination in Europe, with 7000 years of history and culture. It is home to charming palaces, ultra-modern boutique hotels and everything in between. It is a hidden gem, a short distance away from Italy and is a gateway between Europe and MENA.

Minister of tourism for Malta, Edward Zammit Lewis says that things have certainly gotten better on the leisure tourism front, and the destination is becoming increasingly popular. “We have managed to not only increase the number of tourists but also the bed nights, which is very important for the hotels, along with the expenditure per head.”

He adds that the government has made a conscious effort to increase air connectivity, with point-to-point flights, and a roster of airlines. It has also built on its offerings for the film industry, roping in €29 million ($32.1mn) in 2014 and already surpassing that figure in the first four months of 2015.

Despite the beautiful weather, scenic locales and scrumptious F&B offerings, it is not a popular holiday destination for the Middle East, as a number of travel agents confirmed, and the popularity dips perilously when it comes to MICE.

On the whole, MICE accounts for approximately 7% of all arrivals in Malta. Commenting on its importance, Malta Tourism Authority director new markets, cruise and segment marketing Carlo Micallef says: “It is an important segment as it mostly comes in winter and shoulder seasons, and creates more income in the economy. We know that MICE delegates spend three times as much as a normal tourist. It is high yield and it gives us diversity in our products, so our hotels can invest to enhance certain aspects of the hotel, which would otherwise not be feasible to invest in.”

The majority of the MICE business in Malta is driven by its European neighbours, and with a vision to expand the horizon, the government has established a separate entity to lead the development in this sector. The objective is to explore new markets — including the Middle East, increase the offerings and create a steady revenue stream.

Currently, Malta attracts approximately 10,000 business travellers from the Middle East. Micallef adds: “We are at a stage where after five to six record years, we are investing into new markets, where we see opportunity for growth. And the Gulf is one of the regions where we see good opportunity. Although MICE business from the Middle East is a few thousand, it is still not an insignificant number — it is still important.”

The country hosts a number of 40 to 50 people groups from the Middle East in a year, mostly from pharmaceutical and ICT companies, and a delegation of 400-500 once a year.

What makes Malta, a group of three small islands in the heart of the Mediterranean, an attractive destination for MICE business is that within a small area, it has a variety of landscapes, cultures and opportunities, which makes it an apt location for a variety of events. The country is home to castles, palazzos, forts, theme parks, village squares, luxury yachts and sea-front facilities, which can be used as venues for different types of events. In addition, there are a number of conference hotels available, including the 16th century Mediterranean Conference Centre.

The island currently has 14 five-star hotels, which can accommodate a total of approximately 5500 people. They are all equipped with in-house meeting facilities and many of them are clustered within walking distance of each other, enabling event organisers to split up large groups into different properties. Moreover, the 40-plus four-star hotels on the islands provide for an additional 14,000 beds. Further developments are in progress, with hotel chains like Corinthia investing to develop Malta’s luxury hotels portfolio.

Malta is well equipped when it comes to ground handlers for MICE events. Micallef shares: “We have more than enough ground handlers. At the moment, we have around 60 DMCs, who specialise in handling MICE business. We classify them as the quality assured ones and otherwise. The quality assured ones have a certain level and amount of business every year, full time staff, particular expertise in different markets, and they have reached the standards required.”

As public and private sectors have joined forces to promote tourism and MICE, authorities often go an extra mile to accommodate special requests, and arrange for venues that are generally not available for public use. “If there is an event and they want to use the Grand Master’s Palace as the venue, which is the former house of parliament and not open to public, it can be arranged. There is a short chain of command in Malta, so if you speak to the right person, the request can be accommodated. We cannot give it every time, but exceptions can be made for special events,” says Micallef.

The obvious traces of Arabic in the Maltese language and culture influences in its architecture are often overlooked but can be a strong USP for MICE managers in the Middle East. Moreover, there is no dearth of halal F&B outlets; some hotels, like InterContinental Malta, are halal-compliant, and can offer a variety of cuisines.

The country is considered relatively safe, according to the OSAC’s 2014 report, which gives it an edge amongst its neighbouring destinations. Lewis adds: “We are in a region where there are obvious problems in our neighbouring countries, but Malta remains an unaffected destination.”

While authorities believe that the best way to promote Malta is to bring the right people to the island and let them experience the offerings, it nonetheless invests significant resources to expose the location to established and emerging markets. Besides hosting FAM trips, Malta’s MICE development team often goes to places like Dubai to host workshops and one-to-one meetings to promote the destination.

There is a mixed response to exposure and viability of Malta as a MICE destination amongst travel agents in Middle East. A couple of them that Arabian Travel News contacted for comments politely declined for they had not done business with the destination, nor had any immediate plans to change it.

Alternatively, some travel agents have explored the islands and have an optimistic outlook. Wego MENA and India managing director Mamoun Hmedan says: “Malta is definitely experiencing a measure of growth in interest from MENA travellers, which was evident this year on Wego. It’s possible that Malta is taking advantage of economic instability in Cyprus, and tourists trading one holiday island for the other. There’s also been a far greater interaction between Malta, the UAE, KSA and Qatar with new co-operative agreements signed and in the works. Approaches for potential investment from MENA in Malta will likely have an effect on visitation.”

He anticipates that corporate and leisure tourism will feed off an increase in international investment, and its focus on IT companies.

While it is slowly coming to the forefront, Malta still has a long way to go to come at par with its European competitors on the MICE front. ITL World — Travel Management Company senior manager — product development Naouphale Mohammed says: “Malta has some unique spots for MICE that are used well by European travellers. However, probably due to a lack of aggressive marketing campaign in the region, it is doubtful whether the destination has received the deserving numbers from the Middle East.

“Malta currently is well tuned to the Middle East markets and provide halal meals as well as private areas within select hotels for families et cetera. It has many English and other language schools and moreover English is widely spoken in the country. It is just that the message needs to reach to a wider audience. For that, a long term marketing initiative is necessary. With Tecom’s smart city and other investments growing from this region, Malta is likely to get more attention and prominence in the coming years, which will result in increased tourism and business activities.”

Al Futtaim Travel business development manager — MICE Inasu Chirayath adds that there should be more low-cost flights from the region to Malta in order to promote this destination, along with a focus on competitive pricing and high customer service levels.

To conclude, it would be fair to say that the island certainly has the potential and resources to host MICE business, and the increasing popularity is a harbinger of a positive outlook. At the same time, it needs to invest in promotions and getting the right message across to new markets to capitalise on its investment on infrastructure and human resources.

This article was initially published in Arabian Travel News – August 2015.