Tourism: from Covid to Climate Change

The tourism lobby, through the MHRA (Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association), is once more breathing down the authorities’ neck. Some of their former employees have not returned, after the pandemic.  They are obviously referring to those employees of theirs who were shed off their payroll, as soon as the pandemic impacts started being felt.

After treating some of their employees like shit they are now asking for tax exemptions as a carrot to attract them back to fill the void created. Tax exemptions?  Difficult to qualify if you are employed on a zero-hour contract, hardly paying any tax at all!

The fact that an increasing number of employees are migrating from the tourism industry, is indicative that the employment conditions and the remuneration paid by the industry, at least, to some of its employees, is not worth it. If it were, former employees would come back on their own without the need to be enticed with tax exemptions.

Specifically, sections of the tourism industry are based on cheap labour: paying miserly hourly rates on zero-hour contracts. In addition to having reasonable rates of pay, it is imperative that zero-hour contracts are scrapped. That is to say a contract of employment must be for an agreed number of hours per week and not left at the absolute discretion of the employer. Greens in Malta have repeatedly advocated this step. A Labour government is apparently not interested.

Isn’t it about time that the tourism industry gets its act together? Government has over the years dedicated many resources to help the industry get on its feet. Various subsidies and favourable administrative decisions including planning policies designed to ride roughshod over the residential community are in place. Yet they want more.

At almost 3 million tourists in 2019, Malta is definitely close to a saturation point in the uptake of tourists it can handle. This has placed too large a strain on the country’s infrastructure.

Covid has clearly identified an Achilles heel. We need to learn a number of lessons. Foremost to reduce our dependence on tourism in order to ensure that the next time movement between countries is an issue, impacts on all are cushioned considerably. The next issue is round the corner. It is climate change.

Last week various initiatives were announced by the EU Commission in order that the target of carbon neutrality by 2050 is achieved. The Commission has identified a number of measures which could facilitate the achievement of an intermediate target of 55 per cent greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2030 and beyond.

One such initiative is the environmental taxing of aviation fuel. Such an initiative is intended to internalise the environmental costs of such flights. This could result in either of two options: the payment of a carbon tax by those who use such flights or the use of alternative modes of transport thus avoiding altogether the payment of the tax.

On mainland Europe, use of trains is in many cases a suitable alternative which has considerably reduced environmental impacts. However, in our case we do not have practical alternatives to aviation. This will inevitably increase the costs of flights and consequently bring about a reduction in the number of tourists opting to visit Malta. Most of our competitors will be similarly impacted, but that is no consolation for the industry! Cheap plane fares could soon be history.

As announced by Minister Miriam Dalli, Malta expects that it is a “special case”. Most probably it will be successful in negotiating a reasonable transition, and/or some exceptions. In the long run, however, opposing outright such a measure goes against Malta’s long-term interests. Malta, like all island states, together with coastal settlements and communities, will have to face some of the worst impacts of climate change, that is sea-level rise. The climate, would not care less about our special case, or our economy. It will impact us just as forcefully. The climate is merciless.

It would be pertinent to remember that most of our tourism infrastructure lies along or within reach of the coast. This signifies that a sea-level rise could easily play havoc with such infrastructure. If substantial, a sea-level rise will also seriously impact our coastal communities, which are spread over quite a large area along the coast.

It is about time that we stop and think carefully. Tourism is at the crossroads. It needs to be subject to an overhaul: taking into consideration the covid lessons, and applying them to the climate change scenario which sooner or later we will have to face. This is the future of tourism, not tax exemptions.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 25 July 2021

Tourism planning needs tuning in to reality

A ten-year tourism strategy entitled Recover, Rethink, Revitalise has been published for consultation. It is a strategy which advocates an improvement in quality but does not seek to address the oversupply of bed-stock.

During summer of 2019, Tony Zahra, President of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) had sounded the alarm: he was reported as saying that the number of tourists visiting Malta was too high. He emphasised that it was substantially exceeding the limits of what the country can take sustainably. Tony Zahra was obviously emphasising the interest of the lobby group which he heads: the hotel industry.

The proposed tourism strategy advocates a return to the pre-Covid19 tourism levels, albeit recognising that this will be difficult to achieve as well as accepting that it will take quite some time to be achieved, if at all. Searching through the tourism strategy document for the terms agri-tourism and eco-tourism yields a zero-return indicating that the document is more of a post-Covid hotel industry roadmap than a tourism strategy.

The strategy indicates that the best scenario forecasts until 2030 suggest an increase from the 2019 2.75 million tourists to between 3 and 3.2 million tourists which would generate an average 21 million overnight stays annually. The strategy goes on to state that on the basis of existing and in the pipeline licenced bed-stock this equates to an unprofitable 57.5 per cent occupancy rate. The unlicenced bed stock further dilutes occupancy rates closer to 50 per cent, we are informed by the strategy document.

This does not point towards a potential recovery but more that the tourism industry, is, in this critical period shackled by the land development free-for-all advocated by land use planning policies over the past years. Specifically, this has been done through the continuous tinkering with the height limitation adjustment policy for hotels as well as the haphazard application of flexibility in day-to-day land use planning.

This in no way translates into a quality improvement!

The decadent land use planning process has infected tourism planning too. No wonder that the former Chief Executive of the Planning Authority is now the CEO of the Malta Tourism Authority. It is poetic justice that he should be responsible for cleaning the mess to which he substantially contributed to!

Where do we go from here?

The authors of the tourism strategy are aware that there are other possible solutions but they shoot them down. These last months were an opportunity to re-examine the fundamental role of tourism within the overall socio-economic context of the Maltese islands. The Covid19 pandemic has resulted in a reduced movement of people, a less hectic lifestyle, reduced emissions and the reduction of other negative elements for which tourism is usually singled out as a major contributor. 

Contrary to what the proposed tourism strategy opines, it is not simplistic to seriously consider the need to reset the industry. A lower level of tourism activity would prove beneficial to the destination by making it less busy and less crowded to the benefit of both the local resident population and visitor satisfaction. Obviously, it would reduce the tourism contribution to the national economy, but it would also reduce the substantial costs which planners tend to ignore or else to shift onto other sectors! Costs are not just measured in financial terms but also in terms of environmental and social impacts.  

Some months ago, I had written about turistofobia, a term coined by Catalan anthropologist Manoel Delgado, indicating a mixture of repudiation, mistrust and contempt for tourists and tourism. The social discontent associated with the pressures linked to tourism growth cannot be ignored any further.

Among the issues contributing to this developing tourist phobia are social discomfort, environmental degradation (including both generation of waste and excessive construction activity), traffic congestion, noise, the loss of cultural identity and socio-cultural clashes.

The post-Covid19 recovery is a unique opportunity for tourism planners to take note of and tune in to reality.  Unfortunately, the proposed strategy sidesteps the real issues.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 31 January 2021

Politika dwar turiżmu sostenibbli

L-Awtorità Maltija tat-Turiżmu għadha kif ħabbret li tul l-2019 2.75 miljun turist żaru Malta. Din qabża kbir fuq perjodu ta’ għaxar snin. Fl-2010 iċ-ċifra kienet ta’ 1.33 miljun turist. Ġejna infurmati wkoll li t-turisti li żaru Malta tul l-2019, kemm damu fostna, nefqu iktar minn 2.2 biljun euro, ċifra li taqbeż ir-rekord stabilit fl-2018.

Dawn numri impressjonanti, sakemm tistaqsi (u jkollok tweġiba għal) mistoqsija bażika. Dan kollu, sostenibbli?

Xi snin ilu l-Awtorità tat-Turiżmu kienet ikkonkludiet studju li minnu joħroġ li t-turist li jiġi jżura, ras għal ras, jikkonsma 50% mir-riżorsi iktar minna li noqgħodu hawn. Din l-informazzjoni kont sibtha jiena u naqra wieħed mir-rapport dwar il-qagħda ambjentali tal-pajjiż (State of the Environment Report). Fil-qosor, dan ifisser impatt addizzjonali ras għal ras fuq ir-riżorsi li nagħmlu użu minnhom u mhux biss l-ilma u l-elettriku imma wkoll l-iskart iġġenerat, it-trasport, l-art żviluppata u ħafna iktar.

L-istatistika ppubblikata mill-Uffiċċju Nazzjonali tal-Istatistika tiffoka fuq l-aħbar pożittiva relatata mat-turiżmu lejn Malta. Imma dan kollu xejn ma jispjega l-impatti ġġenerati bħala riżultat. L-istatistika, wara kollox, m’għandiex dan l-iskop! Mhuwiex xieraq li tiffoka fuq l-aħbar li timpressjona mingħajr ma tfisser u tispjega l-impatti kkawżati biex jitlaħqu dawn ir-riżultati. .

Xi ġimgħat ilu, fuq dawn il-paġni kont iddiskutejt turiżmu li qed jikber iżżejjed (overtourism). Dakinnhar kont staqsejt jekk l-impatt ekonomiku tat-turiżmu jiġġustifikax l-effetti soċjali u ambjentali tiegħu. Dak li jiflaħ pajjiżna, jiġifieri dak li nirreferu għalih bħala l-carrying capacity tal-gżejjer Maltin, ċioe n-numru ta’ turisti li għalihom għandna riżorsi adegwati, hu ta’ importanza fundamentali f’din id-diskussjoni. Politika dwar it-turiżmu li dan kollu ma tqiesux sewwa hi politka difettuża.

Julia Farrugia Portelli, Ministru għat-Turiżmu, donnha hi tal-istess ħsieb. Fil-fatt, hi u titkellem dwar iċ-ċifri tat-turiżmu għas-sena 2019 ħabbret li l-abbozz tal-pjan għat-Turiżmu li għandu jwassalna sal-2025 ser ikun ibbażat fuq il-prinċipji ta’ turiżmu sostenibbli, kif ukoll fuq il-kisbiet tas- snin li għaddew.

Jista’ t-turiżmu qatt ikun sostenibbli? Kif bosta minna bla dubju ntebħu, is-sostenibilità hi terminu minn l-iktar abbużat.

Aħna u neżaminaw il-kontribut tat-turiżmu lis-soċjetà Maltija m’għandniex nillimitaw ruħna għad-dħul finanzjarju: għandna nagħtu każ ukoll tal-ispejjeż, mhux biss f’termini ta’ flus imma wkoll l-ispiża soċjali u ambjentali.

B’żieda mal-eċċessività ta’ riżorsi ikkunsmati ras għal ras mit-turisti wieħed għandu jżid mhux biss l-iżvilupp esaġerat tal-art, li għalih it-turiżmu wkoll jagħti sehem mhux żgħir, imma ukoll il-kontribuzzjoni lejn it-tibdil fil-klima mill-industrija tal-avjazzjoni. Din hi materja li ma nistgħux nibqgħu ninjorawha. Bla dubju ser nisimgħu ħafna iktar dwar dan matul il-ġimgħat u x-xhur li ġejjin huwa u jiżviluppa d-dibattitu dwar il-Patt Ġdid Aħdar tal-Unjoni Ewropea (EU Green Deal) ippilotat mill-Kummissarju Frans Timmermanns. Dakinhar nifhmu aħjar dwar kif jaħsbuha dwar is-sostenibilità u l-iżvilupp sostenibbli dawk li jfasslu l-politika.

Il-viżjoni għat-turiżmu għas-snin li ġejjin tkun waħda werċa jekk ma tagħtix kaz tal-impatti soċjali u ambjentali tal-industrija. Dawk li jfasslu l-politika għat-turiżmu għandhom iħarsu lil hinn mid-dħul finanzjarju.

Lura fl-2008 l-antropologu Katalan Manoel Delgado kien ħoloq it-terminu turistofobia, biża’ mit-turiżmu, terminu li jwassal taħlita ta’ sentimenti ta’ stmerrija, nuqqas ta’ fiduċja u tmaqdir tat-turiżmu. Il-politika dwar it-turiżmu għandha tindirizza dawn l-impatti tat-turiżmu billi tassigura li t-turiżmu jkun limitat u ma jaqbiżx dak li jiflaħ il-pajjiż (carrying capacity). Dan ikun pass tajjeb il-quddiem għat-turiżmu u jikkuntrasta mal-qagħda xejn sostenibbli li għandna illum.


Ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 9 ta’ Frar 2020

A sustainable tourism policy!

The Malta Tourism Authority has announced that, during 2019, the Maltese Islands received a record 2.75 million tourists, an impressive jump from the 2010 figure of 1.33 million.

We are told that the expenditure on the part of tourists visiting Malta during 2019 exceeded €2.2 billion, surpassing the previous record set in 2018.

The numbers are quite impressive but the basic question to ask, however, goes beyond impressive numbers. Is this sustainable?

Some years back, a study carried out by MTA concluded that a tourist visiting the Maltese islands makes use of 50 per cent more resources that locals. I originally came across this information when going through one of the State of the Environment Reports. In brief, this signifies an additional per capita impact on all resources that we use – not just water and electricity, but also waste generated, transport, land developed and much more.

The statistics published by the National Statistics Office give positive news regarding inbound tourism to Malta. They do not, however, explain in any way the impacts generated as a result, which is something beyond the scope of statistics. It is not, however, appropriate to sing the praises with numbers and ignore these impacts. Some weeks ago, I discussed the issue of over-tourism in these pages. I posed the question as to whether the economic impact of tourism justifies its social and environmental impacts. The carrying capacity of our islands – that is, the number of tourists with which our resources can reasonably cope – is of fundamental importance. A tourism policy that does not adequately consider the carrying capacity of the Maltese Islands is fundamentally flawed.

Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli is apparently thinking on the same wavelength. When discussing the 2019 tourism results, she announced that a draft tourism policy leading us up to 2025, will be based on the principles of sustainable tourism “while building on achievements of the past years”.

Can tourism ever be sustainable? The term “sustainability”, as most of us are by now aware, is a much-abused word and it is often used out of context in an effort to try and justify anything.

In order to gauge the contribution of tourism to Maltese society, we should not only consider the earnings derived there from but should also factor in the costs – not just financial ones but also social and environmental costs.

To the 50 per cent excess consumption of resources per capita one must add not only the overdevelopment of land generated by tourism but also the contribution to climate change by the aviation industry. This is certainly not negligible and we only ignore it at our peril. We will undoubtedly hear much more about this as the debate on the EU Green Deal – piloted by EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans – unfolds over the coming weeks and months. We will then understand much better what policy-makers assume when they use the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development”.

The proposed tourism vision for the years ahead will be myopic if it does not factor in environmental and social impacts. Policy makers should look beyond the financial bottom-line.

Way back in 2008, Catalan anthropologist Manoel Delgado had coined the term “turistofobia” which term conveys a mixture of repudiation, mistrust and contempt for tourists. A tourism policy should address these negative impacts of tourism by ensuring that it is restrained within the carrying capacity of the Maltese Islands. This would be a reasonable first step towards a tourism that is less unsustainable than at present.

published on The Independent on Sunday : 9 February 2020

Turiżmu li jagħti kas lin-nies

Id-dibattitu dwar l-impatti tat-turiżmu hu wieħed li ma jispiċċa qatt. X’impatti soċjali u ambjentali huma ġustifikabbli minħabba l-gwadann ekonomiku tat-turiżmu? Ir-riżorsi tal-pajjiż, fi ftit kliem x’numru ta’ turisti jifilħu?

Iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa, Tony Zahra, President tal-MHRA (l-Assoċjazzjoni Maltija tal-Lukandi u r-Restoranti) kien kritiku dwar in-numru ta’ turisti u l-impatt tagħhom. Kien rappurtat li qal li n-numru ta’ turisti li qed jiġu Malta kien qed jikber wisq. Emfasizza li l-pajjiż ma jiflaħx għall-impatti li jiġġeneraw daqshekk turisti. L-interess ta’ Tony Zahra fit-turiżmu dejjem kien limitat għall-impatt fuq dawk li joperaw il-lukandi: fejn Zahra għandu l-interessi finanzjarji tiegħu. Għadni qatt ma smajt lill- MHRA u lil Tony Zahra, per eżempju, jinkoraġixxu l-agri-turiżmu, u l-importanza ta’ dan (kieku jsir sewwa) biex jiddiversifika b’mod sostenibbli l-prodott turistiku Malti.

Kważi simultanjament għall-kummenti ta’ Tony Zahra, l-Istitut tal-Università ta’ Malta dwar il-Gżejjer u l-Istati Żgħar (The Islands and Small States Institute) ippubblika studju tal-Professuri Lino Briguglio u Marie Avellino, intitolat : Has overtourism reached the Maltese Islands?

Fl-istudju tagħhom, Briguglio u Avellino jagħtu daqqa t’għajn u jidentifikaw dak li għaddej fit-turiżmu u jidentifikaw l-argumenti kritiċi li qed ikunu żviluppati dwar il-materja. Turiżmu li qed jikber iżżejjed (overtourism) u l-biża’ mit-turiżmu (tourismphobia) huma termini li qed jintużaw bi frekwenza li qed tiżdied biex jiddeskrivu l-impatti soċjali negativi li qed jiżviluppaw bħala riżultat ta’ turiżmu li qed jikber kważi bla rażan. Kien fl-2008 li l-antropologu Katalan Manoel Delgado ddeskriva it- turistofobia bħala taħlita ta’ stmerrija, nuqqas ta’ fiduċja u tmaqdir tat-turiżmu.

Fl-istudju ta’ Briguglio u Avellino hu analizzat stħarriġ li għalih, 51% ta’ dawk li wieġbu qalu illi ma jixtiqux jaraw iktar turisti fil-belt jew raħal tagħhom. L-awturi jinterpretaw dan bħala li jindika li t-turiżmu f’Malta kiber wisq (overtourism), avolja jqisu li l-kampjun ta’ dawk li wieġbu l-istħarriġ hu ftit dgħajjef minħabba li mhux rappresentattiv b’mod adegwat.

Fost l-affarijiet li qed jikkontribwixxu għall-iżvilupp ta’ din il-biża mit-turiżmu hemm il-pressjonijiet soċjali u l-impatti ambjentali (kemm skart b’mod ġenerali kif ukoll il-kontribut għal attività esaġerata tal-industrija tal-kostruzzjoni), konġestjoni tat-traffiku, storbju, it-theddida tat-telf tal-identità kulturali u konflitti soċjo-kulturali.

L-MHRA, kif indika Tony Zahra, tidher li hi tal-istess fehma, avolja Zahra tkellem b’mod ġenerali u evita li jitkellem fid-dettall. L-interess tiegħu, wara kollox, hu l-impatt fuq il-but tal-membri tal-MHRA.

L-istudju ta’ Briguglio u Avellino jemfasizza l-ħtieġa li l-politika dwar it-turiżmu għandha tfittex li tindirizza l-impatti negattivi tal-industrija. Dan mhux biss biex tkun indirizzat il-kwalità tal-ħajja tar-residenti lokali imma ukoll biex l-esperjenza tat-turist tkun waħda aħjar u awtentika. It-triq ‘il-quddiem, jgħidulna Briguglio u Avellino, hi d-demokratizzazzjoni tal-iżvilupp turistiku u dan billi jkun inkoraġġit l-impenn tar-residenti milquta fil-komunitajiet tagħna. L-awturi ma jidħlux f’dettall biex jispjegaw dan kollu x’jista’ jfisser. Għandna nifhmu, iżda, li l-proċess tat-teħid tad-deċiżjonijiet kollha li jikkonċernaw l-iżvilupp tat-turiżmu għandhom ikunu soġġetti għal skrutinju pubbliku kontinwu. Dan m’għandux ifisser biss is-sehem tar-residenti milquta f’dan l-iskrutinju imma fuq kollox li dak li jgħidu jkun rifless fid-deċiżjonijiet li jittieħdu.

Permezz tad-demokratizzazzjoni tal-iżvilupp turistiku, hu iktar possibli li l-interessi u aġendi konfliġġenti fit-turiżmu jkunu indirizzati. Bħala riżultat ta’ dan, l-imprenditur li jħares lejn il-qliegħ immedjat ikollu jiffaċċja r-realtajiet soċjali u l-impatti ambjentali u kulturali tal-ħidma tiegħu. Bħalissa l-operaturi turistiċi jimpalaw il-profitti u aħna, l-bqija, ndewwu l-feriti soċjali, kulturali u ambjentali li jkunu ħolqu b’ħidmiethom.

It-turiżmu mhiex attività li issir f’bozza. Isseħħ f’komunità magħmula min-nies li għandhom ikollhom l-assigurazzjonijiet kollha neċessarji li l-kwalità tal-ħajja tagħhom mhux ser taqla’ daqqa l-isfel bħala riżultat. It-turiżmu mhux dwar numri ta’ turisti, miljuni ta’ ewro li jintefqu inkella dwar il-kontribut lejn il-Prodott Gross Nazzjonali. Hu ukoll dwar il-kwalità tal-ħajja tagħna lkoll.

It-turiżmu sostenibbli huwa primarjament dwar in-nies u mhux dwar il-profitt. Stennejna iktar minn biżżejjed biex dawk li huma effettwati jkunu assigurati li l-ħajja tagħhom ma tibqax imtappna minn dawk li jaraw biss il-flus. Biex dan iseħħ ma hemm l-ebda alternattiva għajr li l-iżvilupp turistiku jkun demokratizzat.


Ippubblikat fuq Illum: il-Ħadd 11 t’Awwissu 2019

The democratisation of tourism

The debate on the impacts of tourism is never-ending. To what extent does the economic impact of tourism justify its social and environmental impacts? What is the carrying capacity of our islands, that is, what is the number of tourists with which our resources can reasonably cope?

Earlier this week, Tony Zahra, President of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) sounded the alarm: he was reported as saying that the number of tourists visiting Malta was too high. He emphasised that it is substantially exceeding the limits of what the country can take sustainably. Tony Zahra’s interest in tourism is limited to the impacts on hotels and hoteliers, his bread and butter. I have yet to hear the MHRA and Tony Zahra advocating agri-tourism, for example, and its importance in diversifying Malta’s tourism product sustainably.

Almost simultaneously The Islands and Small States Institute of the University of Malta published a Paper authored by Professors Lino Briguglio and Marie Avellino, entitled: Has overtourism reached the Maltese Islands?

In their Paper Briguglio/Avellino skim though the issues, identifying the trends and an ever-growing literature on over-tourism. “Over-tourism” and “tourismphobia” are increasingly used as terms to describe the emergence of social discontent with the pressures linked to tourism growth. It was way back in 2008 that  the Catalan anthropologist Manoel Delgado had described turistofobia as a mixture of repudiation, mistrust and contempt for tourists.

In a survey which is discussed in the Briguglio/Avellino paper, 51 per cent of respondents said that they did not want to see more tourists in their town or village. The authors interpret this as indicating the existence of over-tourism in the Maltese islands, even though they consider the sample of respondents as being weak and not adequately representative.

Among the issues contributing to this developing tourist phobia are social discomfort, environmental degradation (including both generation of waste and excessive construction activity), traffic congestion, noise, the loss of cultural identity and socio-cultural clashes.

The MHRA, as indicated by its President Tony Zahra, seems to be on the same wavelength although Tony Zahra limits himself to speaking in general terms, as his primary interest is the financial bottom-line of MHRA members.

The Briguglio/Avellino paper points at the need for tourism policy to consider mitigating the negative impacts of tourism. This could address not just the well-being of the local residents but also the tourist experience. The democratisation of tourism development through encouraging the active participation of the residents suffering the impact in our communities, opine Briguglio/Avellino, could be the way forward. The authors do not go in detail as to what the “democratisation of tourism development” would actually mean. It is, however, understood that the decision-making process of tourism development should be subjected to more public scrutiny by the community suffering from the impact and, that the views of the community are not only heard but acted upon.

Through the democratisation of tourism development, the conflicting interests and agendas involved in tourism must be addressed. As a result, the short-term gains of tourism entrepreneurs would be compelled to face the reality of social responsibility, as well as cultural and environmental costs. So far, the tourism operators pocket the profits and we, the rest, face the impacts.

Tourism is not an activity that happens in a vacuum. It takes place in a community of persons, who should be assured that their quality of life is not impacted negatively upon as a result of the experience. Tourism is not just about numbers of tourists, or the millions of euros spent or a contribution to the Gross National Product: it is also about our quality of life.

Sustainable tourism is primarily about people – not about profit! Is it not about time that those feeling the impacted are involved in ensuring that their lives are not made miserable by others whose vision is limited to euros on the horizon?

The democratisation of touristic development is the only way forward.


published on the Malta Independent on Sunday: 11 August 2019

Paceville Master Plan: greed or need?


Land use planning is essentially public control over the use and development of land, so it necessarily follows that it should not be a speculators’ shopping list implemented by the state.

Unfortunately, the Paceville Master Plan is just such a shopping list as it collates together the requirements of nine mega-projects and presents them as a “master plan”. In fact Sandro Chetcuti, on behalf of the Malta Developers’ Association, reacted to the Master Plan by stating that it “ fails to address the possibility of new projects that could involve existing buildings and concentrated too much on nine particular sites.”   Mr Chetcuti’s Association is also feeling excluded.

And the residents have the same feeling; they have been excluded by a master plan which focuses on the interests of business – in particular  the interests of mega-speculators.

Not so long ago, in May 2012, The Social Affairs Committee of Malta’s Parliament  published a 63-page report on Paceville in which it emphasised the fact that right there, in the midst of this entertainment Mecca, there was also  a residential community. The conflicts between these two interests can at times be substantial and yet the Master Plan ignores these conflicts completely. The only residents in which the Master Plan is interested  are those who will purchase  apartments in the new developments.

The five over-arching objectives of the Master Plan emphasise the creation of a development vision which can be described in one word : “Dubai-ification”. Painted in glossy words as “Clear Brand and Identity” , “Access and Connectivity”,  “Planned and Managed Change”, “Quality Place-Making” and “Private-Public Partnerships”, at the end of the day “Dubai-ification” is what the Paceville Master Plan is all about.

The problems currently faced by Paceville are basically no different from those faced by other parts of Malta. Yet the Master Plan document wastes a substantial number of its 234 pages in order to emphasise the obvious. For example, it emphasises that Paceville is dominated by traffic and on-street parking. However, the consultants drawing up the plan then stopped short of proposing – as a preferred option –  measures that would  radically address the area’s dependence on cars. They did not choose the option to create an environment that is not dominated by the car, thus missing an opportunity to eliminate traffic congestion in Paceville that would have had the additional  benefit of improving local air quality.

While the Master Plan consultants went into great detail about issues that are covered in various national environmental policy documents, they did not consider it necessary to examine in any detail the area’s tourism-carrying capacity. The Master Plan does not examine whether it makes sense to keep on encouraging hotel construction in an area that is already saturated with such development. It takes the issue for granted and opts to propose reserving the Paceville coastline for future hotel redevelopment and expansion. This matter calls for some serious consideration, as tourism cannot continue on a never ending expanding trajectory due to the substantial environmental constraints which we face on a daily basis.

The cherry on the cake is the reference to “potential land reclamation” on the Portomaso site. The Master Plan warns that, though relatively shallow, the site lies very close to a Marine Special Conservation Area, a fact which necessitates a very sensitive approach.

The manner in which the Master Plan is presented tries to camouflage its obvious speculator “shopping list” features. Most of the projects indicated have been in the pipeline for years, and for each and every one of them there is a growing list of concerned residents from the whole of Paceville and neighbouring localities. By trying to present the mega-speculators greed as a national need the proposed Master Plan is doing a disservice to the never ending debate on land use planning in Malta.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 9 October 2016

Comino: beyond sun-block and deckchairs


During the past weeks, the island of Comino has been in the news. The controversy surrounding the deckchair/umbrella hawkers free-for-all at the Blue Lagoon focused on overcharging, breaching of permit conditions and the resulting lack of space for the public making use of public facilities at the beach.

Fines were imposed by the Malta Tourism Authority. This is fine (pun intended) in the short term. However, we need to plan for the long term, keeping in mind  that the island of Comino, is first and foremost a Natura 2000 site and a touristic destination second. Sites forming part of the Natura 2000 network are designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Areas (SPA) according to the Habitats and Birds Directives of the European Union, where habitats and species are listed. The Directives are designated to provide protection to the most vulnerable of the species listed.

It has been stated that every day, at the peak of the summer season, as many as 5,000 visitors land on Comino, most of whom remain in the Blue Lagoon and its environs .

The Natura 2000 Management Plan for Comino published recently, considers that tourism at the Blue Lagoon needs to be controlled efficiently in order to ensure that it is “in harmony with the site’s conservation needs”. One of the measures which the Comino Management Plan establishes as an operational objective is “to plan and implement a tourism carrying capacity assessment of the Blue Lagoon”.

The Management Plan believes that the tourism carrying capacity assessment should be carried out within the first year of the plan’s implementation, which means pretty soon! The issue is of fundamental importance in ensuring that the activity permitted on the island of Comino is compatible with its ecological requirements.

It is not known whether this carrying capacity assessment has been carried out yet. If not it should be done at the earliest.

This is not the first time that Maltese authorities have been asked to consider a proposal to study the possibility of limiting access to a specific site for protection purposes. Around 12 years ago, after rehabilitation work carried out at the Hypogeum in Ħal-Salfieni was concluded, it was decided that there was an urgent need to control its microclimate in order to better protect this archeological jewel so a maximum limit of 80 visitors per day was established.

Various other countries place limits on tourism in order to better control its environmental impacts. There are various examples, but permit me to point to the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, 545 kilometres off the coastal city of Recife. The archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the number of visitors is restricted in order  to adequately protect its environmental patrimony. The environmental protection rules of the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha go into such detail as to even forbid the use of sunprotection lotions/creams or even the use of footwear on the beach, as well as curtailing various other activities incompatible with the archipelago’s ecological characteristics!

It is a path we should consider following for Comino, if we are serious about protecting the little that we still have.

It is welcome news earlier this week as three of Malta’s environmental NGOs, Din l-Art Ħelwa, Friends of the Earth and Nature Trust, have endorsed the proposal for carrying out the capacity assessment of the Blue Lagoon at Comino. Comino deserves our protection. Implementing the Natura 2000 Management Plan for Comino would be a suitable first step.

And the sooner, the better.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 11 September 2016