Malta a feast after travel fast


NEW YORK -- As summer approaches, the island nation of Malta is counting on the season's traditional "festas," or religious festivals, along with its other unique strengths, to lure back U.S. tourists and regain its pre-Sept. 11 momentum.

"The pageantry of our village festas is more and more of an attraction for Americans," said Franco Debono, director, North America at the Malta Tourist Office in Parsippany, N.J. "Our arrivals are already rebounding, and we'd like to see more of the cancellations from last year rebook."

Until Sept. 11, Malta officials were clocking unfettered growth in U.S. arrivals; through September, the island had enjoyed a 17% jump in visitors from North America.

But like the rest of the Continent -- the Mediterranean island chain is a leading candidate for European Union entry in 2004 -- Malta saw drastic visitor drops after the attacks.

Yet even with an 8% falloff in the last quarter of 2001, Malta posted a respectable 4% overall increase in U.S. visitors for the year, notching a record of nearly 20,000 arrivals.

The rebound continues, said Debono, noting that the 1,146 arrivals this January matched figures for the same month last year.

"It shows many people who cancelled bookings in the fall, especially groups, did rebook," he said.

Despite its relative proximity to the Middle East, Malta boasts several qualities that apparently reassures U.S. guests, among them a strong Catholic heritage and widespread use of the English language.

"Peace of mind is an important part of anyone's holiday," said Debono. "It always helps, but [now] it's critical more than ever."

Malta partnered with six operators to offer weeklong stays priced from $999 from late spring through fall. Above, the Vedette tower at Senglea Point. Another eternally crucial factor in travel is cost, and Maltese officials have partnered with several tour operators to offer air-inclusive, weeklong stays priced from $999 per person in late spring, summer and early fall.

For example, a package from Amelia International of Hicksville, N.Y., combines roundtrip air on Virgin Atlantic and Air Malta (via London), airport transfers, a welcome cocktail, seven nights' accommodations at either the Kennedy Nova on the Valletta harbor or -- at additional cost -- the oceanfront Crowne Plaza in Sliema, daily buffet breakfast and taxes and service fees.

An optional seven-night, $79 dinner plan ($205 at the Crowne Plaza) and special excursions also are available.

Departures are available from New York (Kennedy), Newark, Boston and Washington (Dulles) through June 14, and from Sept. 16 to Oct. 31. For Los Angeles departures, add $165; agents earn 10% pay.

The seven-night Malta: Jewel of the Mediterranean package from San Francisco-based Scenic World is available from June 16 to Sept. 14 at $1,249 per person, including four-star accommodations at the Preluna Hotel, daily breakfast and air fare from the West Coast. Agent commission is 5%.

Another selling point for Malta is its proximity to Italy; trips to Malta, Gozo and Como can be paired with a stay on nearby Sicily, said Debono.

"It makes much more sense to combine Sicily with Malta than with Rome," he said. "We're so much closer."

In fact, Amelia International offers an optional hydrofoil excursion from Malta to Sicily, where guests can climb volcanic Mount Etna and prowl the resort town of Taormina.

Malta and Italy also share a musical connection this year, with the island's annual jazz festival kicking off just as Umbria Jazz 02, a similar program to run July 12 to 21 in Perugia, Italy, winds down. The Malta International Jazz Festival will sound off at Ta' Liesse near Valletta's Grand Harbor from July 19 to 21.

In another development, the Malta Tourist Office decided not to develop a travel agent specialist certification course; instead, it will concentrate on courting and educating midsize U.S. tour operators in selling the tiny archipelago, said Debono.

"But agents always can call our office anytime directly for any help; we offer very good service," he added.

For more information, contact the Malta Tourist Office at (877) GO-MALTA or at

Book It: Malta tour operators

• Academic Tours
(800) 875-9171

• Amelia International
(800) 742-4591

• Donna Franca Tours
(800) 225-6290

• GWT Inc.
(800) 227-1393

• Mediterranean Destinations
(800) 247-3323

• Scenic World
(800) 952-0226

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