The island republic of Malta is an archipelago of several islands located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea (the main islands being Malta, Gozo, and Comino). It’s 80 km. south of Sicily, 284 km. east of Tunisia, and 333 km. north of Libya. Because of its location, it has been occupied in one time or another by a foreign power – from the Phoenicians, to the Romans, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Habsburg Spain, the Knights of St. John (the Crusaders), the French, and the British (the last foreign occupier of these islands).
Tourists visiting Malta will come across sites from these historic periods. No doubt, the country is perhaps best remembered as a stronghold of Catholicism, personified in its occupation by the military religious order that became known as the Knights of Malta during the 16th century. The capital city of Valletta was named after the Frenchman who led the Knights at the time (Jean Parisot de Valette) and successfully withstood a siege by the Ottomans in 1565. The Knights’ presence on these islands was responsible for many of the fortifications still found there, along with many of the buildings constructed during that period.
In fact, the reign of these Knights continued until 1798, when Napoleon took over Malta – ending medieval rule there. However, due to abuses alleged committed by the French during their time in Malta, locals forced them out and invited the British to take over in 1800. Malta remained under British rule well into the 20th century, given its strategic value (even enduring intense German & Italian bombings during World War II). Malta became independent in 1964, and became part of the European Union in 2004.
Because of its longtime association with Great Britain, English is one of Malta’s current official languages. The other official language is Maltese (a mixture of Arabic, Italian, English and French – reflecting the previous groups that occupied the country).
Given Malta’s Mediterranean location, it’s no surprise that tourism plays an important role in its economy (contributing about 15% of the country’s GDP). In 2012, 1.4 million tourists visited Malta. Along with visitors from various EU countries, Malta also took advantage of tensions between Israel and Turkey by marketing its tourism to the Israelis as a viable Mediterranean alternative (resulting in as many as 30,800 visitors from that country in 2011). In addition, more recent marketing efforts have resulted in more American visitors (around 19,052 in 2013).