At a recent conference on the impact of tourism on Malta, Leslie Vella, Deputy CEO of the Malta Tourism Authority, outlined the profile of culture-seeking tourists as a distinct type of travellers who head to the shores of Malta. The Tourism Authority’s research has shown that one in eleven tourists coming to Malta could be defined that way. What exactly are they looking for?

According to Melisande Aquilina, there is a type of tourists – ‘culturally thirsty individuals’ – who would choose discovery over relaxation any time. They are interested in discovering a historical path which traces back the origins of humanity and its steps and evolution. “Generally, when a historical traveller plans a trip, s/he firstly chooses accommodation which puts him/her at the centre of things; at the cultural centre s/he is staying in. On the other hand, if a car is being rented, it is important for one’s main accommodation to be at an equidistant spot where the sought-after castles, cathedrals, and monuments are relatively close. The target with culturally-oriented holidays is to sightsee as many locations as possible in the time allocated,” she described the process of ‘culturally thirsty’ travelling. The goal is always to make the most of the experience, and the visit is therefore carefully planned.

Culture seekers, as Leslie Vella pointed out, typically visit a country only once. In Malta, four in five culture-seeking tourists are first-timers, unlike people who got to like the islands for their beaches and sea sports. Culture seekers are more educated (60% have tertiary education, as opposed to 17% of all tourists who come to Malta). Half are retired, enjoying the time to discover the world. Among tourists from other Mediterranean countries, culture-seekers make up a larger share compared to tourists from the North – predictably, as Mediterranean tourists wouldn’t travel far in search of some sun and seaside.

When they choose Malta as their holiday destination, culture-seeking tourists want to see historical buildings, visit museums and experience local festivals. Nine in ten visit churches. In fact, their quest for cultural experience evens out tourist flows in Malta, adding to the off-peak flow, because cultural objects are available all year round. Tourist arrivals in February, according to the Tourism Authority, grew by 28% in a single year. On the one hand, culture-seekers help sustain jobs and reduce seasonal swings. On the other hand, if this trend continues growing, residents will never have a break from tourism, Mr Vella warned.

With Valletta as the European Capital of Culture this year, culture-seekers’ experience gets an additional boost, and booths crop up at various localities to orient travellers to their next cultural experience. If the trend grows, an average tourist will need to move around the islands more and experience the unsatisfactory state of public transport. It is not uncommon that, chatting on airport buses in their own languages, newly arrived tourists bring up a travel forum quote in English: “Public transport is known to be unreliable.” Culture-seekers will most likely seek more unique dining experiences, which will lead them to venture outside of tourist hubs, where the supply is more global. I often hear how staff from an Italian restaurant try to lure tourists inside, only to be faced with a question, “Do you have pastizzi?”

Will this trend require rebranding of Malta’s tourism? So far culture-seekers are a minority. Unlike a typical British tourist who returns almost yearly to warm up, they will probably consume what Malta has to offer in one go and move on to the next destination – there is simply too much to see in the world to keep coming back. Still, whatever the potential pitfalls, their growing presence has potential to give an additional boost for Malta’s creative industries and cultural institutions.