The Malta Independent 17 January 2020, Friday

Tourism And national heritage - Sustainability Issues

Malta Independent Sunday, 23 October 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

The first part of this article established that the Hagar Qim/Mnajdra Archaeological Park can be regarded as the beginning of a minimalist sustainable tourism project and that the government lacks the coordination, the mindset and the foresight to introduce comprehensive sustainable tourism projects.

Even with a minimalist sustainable tourism project, one of the major factors that need to be examined is the visitor’s impact on the site. The following is a list, provided by The International Council on Monuments and Sites, of sustainable tourism principles that are essential in protecting a specific site or monument:

Encouraging local people to get to know more about the national heritage of a country.

Managing the dynamic relationship between tourism and sustainability of the site.

Providing a positive experience for the visitor.

Involving local and/or indigenous communities.

Providing benefits to the local community.

Promoting the site responsibly.

If we continue using Hagar Qim as an example for being the most modern site available, it is common knowledge that the interpretation centre is an attempt to provide more information about the park in both traditional and electronic forms. It has charts, tables, models and computers, films and hands-on consoles. The question is whether the site is encouraging the Maltese to get to know more about their national heritage?

Free entrance on the opening night was a positive step, but it needs to be supported by subsidies for secondary and post-secondary students, people with special needs and Maltese families. All over Europe, locals are given special discounts and are even allowed free entrance to many museums. Why should Malta be different? Considering the way our students are abandoning subjects such as history and geography, these sites should work hard to attract them and those who really need to know about our heritage. These people should not be treated like tourists because they are the ones who will keep the flame of interest in our national heritage burning. So I still think work needs to be done to attract more local people to sites such as Hagar Qim, Hal Saflieni and the others.

Concerning the second point of managing the dynamic relationship between tourism and the sustainability of the site, Hagar Qim seems to be on the right track at integrating all the attractions found in the surrounding area into one synergic whole. Information panels provide information on the animals and plants living in the surrounding garigue areas and on further archaeological remains such as the Misqa Tanks. Work still needs to be done on integrating all the aspects of the area including the geography, geology and social features but then the archaeological park is a work in progress.

Community involvement

One the most glaring absences in the Hagar Qim project is the lack of involvement of local communities such as those of nearby Zurrieq and Qrendi. In countries such as Slovenia, Denmark and Australia, if a locality has an archaeological and historical site, or a natural attraction within its confines, it will have the right to manage it professionally and benefit from the visitors it manages to attract.

A good example is a spectacular cave or river that are both potential tourist attractions. The local governing body will have the right to employ experts to perform studies on the best way to use the attraction to draw tourists and investment to the locality. The study determines that a nearby empty house can be changed into an interpretation centre using EU funds. When the site is fully functional it will be able to employ six full-time locals and four part-time tour guides.

Financial analysis reveals that after a year of operation, the fiscal turnover will be enough to offset the basic investment incurred. An added investment of a small snack bar or restaurant will continue to increase the profits with the proviso of selling local specialities, while the locals will have to conserve and protect the site from over-capacity because it has suddenly become a source of labour and revenue for the locality.

This example actually highlights some of the basic tenets of alternative tourism that is usually locally based and managed by small groups of people. The most important advantage of this sort of tourism is that profits remain in the locality. They are not leaked abroad, which is what usually happens with mass tourism whose parent multinational companies are usually based outside the country, so a lot of money ends up in foreign companies’ coffers rather than being circulated in the host country’s economy.

Alternative tourism also depends mostly on the local labour pool and provides work in areas where it is difficult to find jobs. So it can also be used as a tool to inject tourism into outlying and peripheral areas that rarely benefit from tourism.

At present, this system cannot function in Malta as archaeological and historical sites have become centralized and are managed by Heritage Malta. This makes some sense because the agency has the necessary expertise to take care of Maltese sites, and because we are not taking into consideration other sites that are neither historical nor archaeological but can also be regarded as attractions.

The Dingli sustainability project

A unique example is that of the town of Dingli where the local council managed to acquire EU funding to carry out a comprehensive sustainability study of the entire locality. All the attractions were studied and measured, and a number of innovative and creative ideas from different experts regarding the area were collected. Such ideas are meant to help Dingli make the transition from an attractive town that is visited by tourists to an area where rural and agri-tourism is practised. These are based on the locality’s considerable list of local attractions such as the cliffs and associated plant and bird habitats, historical and archaeological sites, areas with a “Sense of Place” and genuine Maltese products including local goats’ cheese (gbejniet), wines, honey and fresh produce.

All these attractions will form the basis for a rural tourist experience in Dingli. The results of all the studies carried out were published in a book entitled “Sustainable Development Strategy: Dingli 2020”. The government should realize that what Mepa, MTA and the Sustainability Unit in the OPM were incapable of doing, was successfully completed by a small yet albeit ambitious and enterprising local council.

The Dingli sustainability study also shows how effective local governance led by a forward looking mayor can be in introducing alternative forms of tourism away from mass tourism areas. This type of sustainable tourism depends on cooperation between official government entities, agencies such as Heritage Malta, authorities such as Mepa and MTA and the local stakeholders in the form of farmers, agri-businessmen, SMEs and NGOs.

With the construction of an Interpretation Centre near Dingli Cliffs, the council will have the ability to manage and market the town’s considerable assets together with a private company and help reduce the workload on Heritage Malta which sometimes complains that it has too many sites and museums to take care of.

All this brings us back to the question of education. For rural tourism to become a reality, a new breed of student is needed − a student who is ready to specialize in this type of tourism. This student must be capable of adopting a holistic approach to tourism, starting by being able to perform an audit of all the attractions in a specific locality.

At the Institute of Tourism Studies, management students have to present a research project as a final dissertation at the end of their studies, and many are choosing to focus on introducing alternative forms of tourism in localities such as Zurrieq, Manikata, Rabat and Vittoriosa. This involves preparing an audit of all the attractions found in the localities and deciding which type of tourism is suited to each locality.

Students use both qualitative analysis based on interviews and focus groups, and quantitative analysis in the form of statistical analysis, surveys and questionnaires. Some students are even using these projects as springboards to kick-start their careers in the industry. One student is converting her parents’ farmhouse into an agri tourism attraction in Zabbar and two students are thinking of offering specialized tourism services at Mgarr based on the concept of Integrated Relational Tourism.

Although these projects are a step in the right direction, students also need to be trained in innovative forms of tourism. They need to know how to follow-up an audit and use its results to organise and sell these attractions. Such training can only be done at the Institute of Tourism Studies, which up to now only trains chefs and hotel managers. The institute needs to start spreading its wings and training students in new forms of alternative tourism such as rural and cultural tourism, and work so that its students are enterprising enough to start their own businesses in these areas.

Responsible promotion

The final point of the ICOMOS charter is that the site must be promoted responsibly.

About a year ago, I was slightly disappointed when I took a group of university professors from Albania and Macedonia who specialize in alternative and rural tourism to visit Hagar Qim and found that many doors and the notice-boards had adverts for a conference about paranormal subjects, UFOs and Atlantis called “Malta Conference 2012 A Positive Outcome”. The conference had nothing to do with history and archaeology except that one of the main speakers, Dr Anton Mifsud, was going to talk about his theory that Malta was the site of mythical Atlantis −a highly controversial assertion that is not accepted by mainstream historians and archaeologists.

I thought the inclusion of these adverts cheapened the Hagar Qim site and I do hope that we don’t end up marketing Malta as Atlantis rather than the birthplace of civilization in the Mediterranean that was capable of building the oldest free standing buildings in existence − the Neolithic temples.

Sustainability = Harmony

The ICOMOS principles clearly show that the relationship between tourism and the environment must be sustainable over a long period of time and that precautionary measures must be taken so that tourism does not destroy Malta’s National Heritage.

There must be a harmonious relationship, in every site, between the visitor’s needs, the sites’ needs and the communities’ needs. Unfortunately, in Malta the communities’ needs are still kept out of the loop of such activities, so we cannot say that tourism in Malta looks at the needs of our communities.

For this to happen we need trained personnel capable of managing specific destinations (destination management) − another missing educational niche in tourism that needs to be addressed by the Institute of Tourism Studies.

Today, destination management has become a very important part of tourism management. It is a mechanism that improves cooperation and collaboration with local industry, and strengthens partnerships with regional economic development agencies/boards and education and training providers. It also includes strategic and commercial planning to make destination of finances more sustainable, which is sorely needed in our country.

All the points discussed tie up nicely with the idea of regenerating a site or location and not just upgrading it, which in Malta seems to be synonymous with sustainability.

As mentioned earlier, sustainability must be comprehensive in its approach so that our national heritage is regarded as an integral part of our country’s financial well being on which so many depend including tourism and education.

A comprehensive programme of sustainability is also more resilient and resistant to speculation and governmental decisions that may try to limit it. Once an area is committed to this form of sustainability, it is very difficult for a government to derail it without incurring extremely negative political fallout. That’s why it is so important that we start thinking along these lines. We all know how governments operate. The seizing of land within the Outside Development Zone that had an area the size of Siggiewi before the last election, permits given by Mepa allowing the construction of a villa in Bahrija, petrol stations near Zebbiegh and Chadwick Lakes and in so many ODZ areas, that the concept of an ODZ has become a joke. All this shows how far away from even thinking sustainability we are. In view of all this, implementing sustainable land use practices in Malta can be regarded as tantamount to a fairytale.

Even the concept of conservation is an on and off affair, managed in piecemeal fashion and with little or no planning. What do the authorities tell tourists who complain about some museums that are so shoddy and old-fashioned, full of yellowing display cards and woodworm infested exhibits? What do they tell them about the pitiful state of some remains such as the Roman Baths and Borg in-Nadur?

The Hagar Qim Archaeological Park concept is the way forward for historical/archaeological sites, but we must resist the urge to bask in the current mood of self-appreciation and back-patting, and remember that what is represented here must be continuously updated to reflect new findings.

We do have the habit of unveiling something new and letting it rot, as if maintenance repair and upgrading are not needed in our country. It’s the main reason why so many roads and playing fields are in disrepair and have become veritable eyesores. We cannot import this attitude to the rest of our national heritage. If a modern interpretation centre at Hagar Qim has been built, we need to ask if it will continue to provide the same information 10 years from now, or if it will update its content.

We need to introduce the idea of renewing our tourism products. Checking whether to increase access to the Interpretation Centre for people with special needs − the deaf and blind − does the centre cater for them too? This mentality must be extended to all the sites dedicated to our national heritage. It is a massive undertaking but it needs to be done if we want to remain competitive and if we want to really start adopting sustainable tourism principles.

It is a pity that in this age of recession and global fiscal problems, it is more important for sites to be financially stable, so spending on conservation and renewal may be seen as attempts to decrease important revenue. At this point, local councils can make a difference and help Heritage Malta in taking care of local sites.

A good example is the Vittoriosa local council under the hard-working direction of its mayor, John Boxall. The council has managed to turn local war shelters into a wartime attraction for tourists. This is one way a locality can profit from its national heritage and at the same time ease the pressure on Heritage Malta, which has so many sites to care for.

Another promising idea is to have partnerships between Heritage Malta and environmental NGOs such as Birdlife Malta and Nature Trust, and the local councils. Together they can apply for EU funds for rural and environmental renewal. EU programmes such as Leader+, ENPI and MED all deal with various aspects of environmental, social and even fiscal sustainability, and can be tapped by these partnerships … and the more the merrier!

Local councils can also tap funds through local action groups that were supposedly set up for this reason about two years ago to enable participation in the Leader+ programme.

Finally, if the product offered by a Maltese site of historical and natural interest and museums is not up to scratch, there is very little chance that they will get repeat visitors, while a site that is updated regularly will be able to offer new experiences and attract more people. Can we honestly say that many of Malta’s museums are continuously updated when some of them still have showcases of 30 years ago?

Cooperation is essential

Malta and Gozo may be small islands but they surely don’t lack voluntary organisations − NGOs, environmental pressure groups, cultural, historical and geographical societies, religious groups, band clubs and so many others. This means that the potential for cooperation is tremendous.

Let me illustrate with a fictitious example. A project called “The Historical Heritage of the Knights of St John” can include Heritage Malta’s National Armoury where a number of suits of armour and weapons are displayed, St John’s Co-cathedral where many renowned knights are buried, some villas in Mdina and Vittoriosa where the knights lived, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta which occupies part of Fort St Angelo Heritage Malta, re-enactment groups, band clubs under the patronage of individuals who are direct descendants of the knights stationed in Malta, culinary groups specializing in 15th century cuisine and local councils with a long history of association with the Knights of St John that are willing to provide an empty villa to house the exhibition and museum and help publicise the project.

It is true that not all the groups involved will have the same interest in the knights but they will have to cooperate to make sure that the project succeeds for the benefit of all. The problem of finances can be solved by sponsorships from banks, gaming, mobile service and soft drink companies, the Malta Tourism Authority and specific EU funds.

If the project is not financially sustainable all the work of so many groups will be in vain and the museum will have to close. But if the museum is marketed as an experience to tour operators and hotels, a steady flow of tourist may visit and benefit from specific activities such as medieval banquets, musical evenings and even a display of the knights’ fighting prowess by a re-enactment group.

Coordination and networking is the way forward to develop Malta’s tourism assets sustainably and at the same time include localities that are usually not regarded as tourist destinations.

Competitiveness

The last factor that affects national heritage sites concerns the competitiveness of the product. There is a very important reason why politicians and major businessmen are continually emphasizing on the competitiveness of our country. If Malta’s competitiveness as a destination decreases, tourists will abandon our island and flock to other destinations that are more competitive because they offer better experiences and products at better prices.

The same applies to museums, historical sites and sites of natural interest. We need to ask tourists what they think about the product they are being offered, how their experience can be improved and whether they think they are getting value for money.

If a tourist has a good experience at Hagar Qim and the Hypogeum, but feels that the Museum of Natural History is old and unkempt, the negative experience will leave the greatest impact. If a person visited two sites and four museums and only enjoyed the two sites, what can be done to remedy this? Research needs to be done on what tourists like and dislike regarding specific attractions; and the results must be published and acted upon, not left to gather dust in some filing cabinet.

A good part of our country’s competitiveness also depends on the way our islands are marketed. Everybody knows the millions upon millions of euros spent by the MTA to promote our islands beyond our shores. Are such considerable sums of money well spent? Are they targeting the right countries and the right demographics? What are the results of sponsoring a football team with taxpayers’ money? Was it worth it?

The Maltese citizen has a right to know this information and to know where his taxes are being spent. Is it right that most of the MTA’s marketing funds are aimed to help just hotels and catering establishments?

How long are we going to allow politically appointed experts to skew results according to what the politicians want? Even experts need to be scrutinized and checked, or else we’ll continue forking out money to gloss over the mistakes of so-called experts who have destroyed the viability of our national airline, are unable to find the source of the so-called black dust, turned Environmental Impact Assessments into a sick joke and used legal loopholes to allow rampant building in the ODZ.

The answer is instilling a culture of accountability that is so lacking in our country; and if we really want to regard sustainability as a solution to serious environmental, touristic and social problems, we need a paradigm shift in our thinking and in the way our politicians govern this country.

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