Malta credits its pageantry for increase in U.S. visitors

VALLETTA, Malta -- Tourism officials in this tiny Mediterranean archipelago report significant increases in North American arrivals this year over last -- a spurt they attribute in part to increased popularity of its festivals -- as they ponder launching an agent specialist program.

According to the latest figures from the Malta Tourism Authority, arrivals from the U.S. from January through April increased 5% compared with the same period last year.

In April alone, 2,200 Americans -- double the April 2000 number -- visited Malta.

"Malta is a year-round destination thanks to our climate, but we're not a typical Mediterranean destination," said Franco Debono, director, North America, for the MTA.

"We don't have the long, long beaches of Tunisia or Greece."

Noting that Malta is dotted with medieval cities, Debono said "it's the pageantry of their [medieval] festivals that's a draw, such as at Christmas and during Holy Week.

"For example, Carnival is very big in Malta, compared to the rest of Europe," he said.

This fall, the country celebrates its sixth annual Birgu Festival Oct. 5 to 7, commemorating the "French Blockade" period with concerts and historical re-enactments.

In addition, the Middle Sea Race will draw the international yacht set starting Nov. 3, and the International Choir Festival will run from Nov. 12 to 16, featuring music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and modern periods.

Debono also credited the increase in U.S. arrivals to the strength of the dollar against the local lira -- which is tied to a weak euro -- and the availability of good "through fares" from Air Malta and its transatlantic partner carriers, such as Virgin Atlantic.

In light of the uptake in U.S. visitors, Debono is weighing whether to introduce an agent specialist program in the U.S. by the end of the year.

"However, I don't know if it makes real sense for agents to concentrate on such a small destination," he said.

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