Michelle Muscat, wife of Malta's prime minister Joseph Muscat

It’s not every day that the first lady of a country shows up to promote tourism, but Michelle Muscat, the wife of prime minister Joseph Muscat, met with media in New York to trumpet the Mediterranean island as an ideal vacation spot.

Muscat said that Malta’s small size and diversity means that it’s possible to do multiple different things in the same day like swim at a beach in the morning, visit an ancient ruin, tour a small village, indulge in activities like hiking and mountain biking and much more.

While Malta was first inhabited 7,000 years ago—and retains traces of that history—it has been discovered by North American travelers in a big way in recent years.

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Michelle Buttigieg, a representative with the Malta Tourism Authority in New York (whose husband may be a distant relative of the presidential candidate), said tourism had quadrupled from North America since her office opened five years ago after a hiatus of a Malta presence in the U.S. Accelerating that growth has been an explosion of cruise ship visitors—with many of those passengers returning to the island on later vacations. Buttigieg said 13 American cruise lines stop at the island.

All told, Malta now welcomes 2.5 million visitors annually (not counting cruise passengers)—an impressive number for a country that has only a half-million inhabitants. Buttigieg also predicted that sometime in the near future there will be nonstop air service from the U.S. to Malta, perhaps not daily but at least weekly. For now, it is easy to connect in many European cities for a short trip to the island.

Travelers to Malta, said Muscat, are looking for something new and undiscovered. She said that while the island may still be considered “exotic,” it is safe, accessible and comfortable. In fact, many luxury hotel brands have a presence in the country and there has been a proliferation of small boutique hotels—including many located in old palaces.

There is a solid lodging infrastructure with major international brands like Hilton and InterContinental in place while Corinthia Hotels, a luxury brand, is itself based in Malta. The Phoenicia Malta is a member of Leading Hotels of the World while Xara Palace is a member of Relais & Chateaux. There is a Kempinski hotel on Gozo, but that island is also known for its villas and bed and breakfasts.

A strong lodging trend, said Buttigieg, is the conversion of palaces around the island into boutique hotels. The palaces were built for the Knights of Malta who ruled the country for almost three centuries.

Among the island’s other attributes: 300 days of sun a year, a heavily English-speaking population and three UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the island, including prehistoric Megalithic Temples, claimed by some to be the oldest freestanding structures on Earth. The city of Valletta itself is a world heritage site.

Valletta

Malta is a member of the United States Tour Operators Association and is a partner destination with Virtuoso and other agency consortia. There are now 30 tour operators who include Malta in their programs.

Buttigieg said that her office has always concentrated on educating the trade. Agents can take a 20-minute course and become Malta specialists. They will receive newsletters and other materials.

The island is also extremely friendly to LGBT travel and sponsored a billboard in New York’s Times Square during Pride Week. Many tours revolve around Malta’s strong Jewish heritage. The island is very religiously oriented in general, said Muscat, with 365 churches—in addition to chapels and sanctuaries.

Malta is made up of three islands—Malta, Gozo (an idyllic island of 35,000) and Comino (with few residents but home to a resort.) There is frequent ferry service to Gozo, a half-hour trip away.

There are other elements that make Malta a destination for agents to consider for their clients, said Buttigieg. No visa is required and the island is a member of the European Union (using the Euro). Many of the flights from Europe involve code sharing with Air Malta while others are direct flights by other national airlines.