Low number of plane seats may hamper tourism recovery

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Malta lags behind competing Mediterranean tourist destinations in the number of plane seats it can offer visitors over the summer, casting doubts on its ability to stage a full recovery in this vital economic sector.

The island’s seat capacity is hovering around 86% of pre-pandemic levels and will drop to just below 85% in August, according to statistics compiled by the Official Aviation Guide.

In contrast, Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Portugal are on track to match their 2019 seat capacities and have already exceeded them in some cases.

Greece, for example, will reach 101% of its 2019 seat capacity in April and is expected to make more airline seats available in the summer than it did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report lists the beach destinations of these four countries as the main rivals competing with Malta for travellers. Mallorca tops the list of competing destinations, with Crete, Tenerife, the Algarve and Santorini rounding out the top five.

Greece will reach 101% of its pre-COVID seat capacity. Bathers on an Athens beach. File photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP

Stakeholders in Malta’s tourism sector say the data reflects a concern they have signaled with growing insistence in recent weeks – that Malta’s restrictive COVID-related travel rules are hurting its appeal as a tourist destination. and hamper its recovery prospects.

Malta has so far required all incoming travelers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, although it will soon also recognize recovery certificates or a negative test result as valid for entry.

In contrast, EU countries have accepted all three certificates as valid for more than one year.

Meanwhile, photos taken inside the airport’s arrivals hall in recent weeks have shown long queues of travelers waiting to present their COVID-19 documents to be allowed into the country. Airport insiders say they are worried about what will happen when tourist arrivals resume as we enter the summer months.

There is simply no place for them. If things don’t change, we’ll end up with lines of travelers waiting on the runway

“There just isn’t room for them,” said an airport official, who asked not to be named. “If things don’t change, we’ll end up with lines of travelers waiting on the runway.”

A spokesman for Malta International Airport said yesterday that the capacity trends for Mediterranean destinations highlighted what the airport has been saying since last summer – that the island’s travel restrictions are “putting us at a disadvantage and hinder our recovery”.

Although none of the countries mentioned in the report have yet fully lifted their travel restrictions, their entry requirements have been brought into line with the EU’s framework for safe travel for nine months, the gatekeeper said. -word.

“Meanwhile, Malta will only align with this framework next week as more and more European countries announce that they have completely lifted all travel restrictions.”

The spokesperson also distinguished between the number of routes served, which will total nearly 100 this summer, and the frequency of flights.

“Although we lost a number of routes due to COVID-19, the losses incurred in terms of frequency, or the number of flights operated by an airline on a weekly basis, were much greater.

“We are still seeing airlines testing the waters with gradual resumptions of their pre-COVID schedules, meaning they are operating flights on particular routes at lower frequencies,” he said.

Around 60,000 passengers entered Malta in January, compared to 150,000 who visited the country in January 2020. And at 47 million euros, tourism spending last January was half the figure two years earlier.

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