Valletta allows people to have fun for free, businesses predictably pissed

In anticipation of the opening of the Valletta – European Capital of Culture 2018 programme, the city of Valletta prepared a full list of activities for residents and visitors – local and foreign bands, an acrobat flown around by a giant balloon, interesting characters walking in the crowd, colourful projections and, finally, fireworks. As ugly as Mediterranean winters can be, the day was exceptionally nice, with almost no wind. Predictably, many people chose the main square of Valletta to meet the new year – it is estimated that there were around 85,000 attendees, which is around 13 times the population of Valletta!

My friends and I watched the event from early on. For me this was the first New Year’s Eve in Valletta, and for those who had done that before the programme aroused mixed feelings. It’s all well and nice, but quite predictable. Dancers in miniskirts, some fireworks, some covers of oldies by Maltese bands… And yet, in a few days, business lobbies made a statement that the event was actually too exciting, and as such it was bad for business!

Despite the availability of public space, various events and quite bearable weather in winter (it’s actually better to stay outside than inside!), the Maltese prefer to meet their new years somewhere cosy. It is typical to rent a farm house, find a house party or join organised events at hotels or restaurants. Hotels actually did not suffer from the public event’s competition. It was mostly felt by entertainment venues. Those competed with the public space in Valletta for people who are looking for an entertaining way to meet the new year.

It is understandable that everyone looks after their own interests. The public event, which entertained people entirely for free and seduced them away from, to paraphrase a friend of mine, paying 30 euros to listen to Despacito. Now 85,000 people could listen to Despacito on violin entirely for free, and it’s great. It is not a good feeling to be excluded because you can’t pay your way to enjoy your city. For those who read Lithuanian, here’s an old post about how I found myself without my credit card in Vilnius for a day. Public spaces are limited, and some of them are constructed just for passing.

I’ve heard many people say they don’t like Brussels because all they know is the EU quarter. It’s known for having close to zero public spaces to hang out. Even stopping for a minute to check the map makes one feel somehow inadequate. The centre of Vilnius is not like that, but when the weather is bad, its parks and squares aren’t much help. When a city’s public domain has a lot to offer without spending money, it creates an inclusive and pleasant atmosphere for everyone – those who do not make enough money and those who simply left their money at home that day.

I hope that Valletta’s pro-business government will not take the statement of the lobbyists as an impetus to tone down celebrations that are free and open for all. This competition is good for everyone. A city is only as good as it is open to money-less enjoyment. So congrats, Valletta, on the good NYE gig, and entertainment businesses need to think how to play better Despacito.

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