The Malta Independent 3 December 2021, Friday

Can agri-tourism thrive in Malta?

Malta Independent Sunday, 22 September 2013, 08:26 Last update: about 8 years ago

Agri-tourism in the Mediterranean area is a much more recent phenomenon than in Northern Europe, where it has developed to a sizeable industry in countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states. So what are its origins? It has a long history dating back to the time of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of urban society that has separated town dwellers from agricultural workers since the early 20th century and created rural tourism as a temporary return to nature for affordable family holidays and recreation.

This particular type of tourism started slowly but has grown exponentially in Italy and other parts of Europe since the 1980s, combining a blend of agriculture and tourism that offers farming communities – and visitors – substantial advantages and has proved to be socially, environmentally and economically beneficial to both groups. It has helped increase revenues for farmers and directly contributes to the diversification of agriculture regarding both the variety of fresh produce and the provision of rural restaurants where visitors can sample typical farm produce and enjoy the hospitality of farming communities, which enhances their appreciation of the cultural, educational and sometimes recreational aspects of the rural community.

Taking Italy as an example, the agri-tourism sector is closely linked to the agri-food market and is therefore influenced by this trend that is assisted directly by the government through grants to set up such ventures. Countries such as Italy, Switzerland and others have discovered the benefits of agri-tourism and enjoyed the arrival of visitors who contribute socially, economically and environmentally.

Governments have happily allocated funds to assist farmers in renovating their properties to make them suitable for accommodating tourists. New forces are now emerging in tourism, however, encouraged by visitors’ interest in the environment and in eating great meals cooked from organic food.

One response to this in Europe has been the Bio-Hotel movement, which was founded in 2001 in Austria with members in seven countries. A unique feature of the Bio-Hotel logo guarantees that practically everything the guests receive will be organic, while the premises themselves are energy-efficient with modern mechanisms to collect and conserve water resources by the use of reverse osmosis plants.

One may well ask how Malta, with its limited countryside and a small farming community, ever justify the promotion of agri-tourism? The answer is that, just as we developed a successful diving tourism sector, so we can – with modest expectations – create new jobs in agri-tourism, especially in the winter months when the number of tourist arrivals in hotels is low and with the introduction of this sector, the MTA can diversify the market.

It goes without saying that, in the same way that in the 1960s the Borg Oliver government began giving grants, tax holidays and seafront plots on the cheap for investors willing to build restaurants and hotels, so can the present government obtain EU structural funds for capital investment targeted at business development in the rural areas, together with the training of full-time – and mostly part-time – farmers in order to fill the new employment opportunities. Transport Malta will also chip in to improve the basic infrastructure necessary to the setting up of other economic activities such as extending transportation and telecommunications, water, the sewage system, etc. to rural areas and outlying farm buildings.

Mepa has to revise its restrictive rules for building in Outside Development Zones (ODZ) when applied to converting farms which, among other things, restricts swimming pools to only 50 sq. metres and paving areas to half this size. How can visitors enjoy outdoor life in converted farms or houses of character with such draconian restrictions in force since 2002? The Malta Tourism Authority, with its massive  €31 million annual marketing budget, can start allocating a reasonable sum to help promote this sector, knowing that competition is stiff with visitors usually failing to notice Malta and booking in nearby Italy or France.

The investment required to renovate outlying farm buildings – mostly in the countryside – is considerable and the owners of such properties have a hard time when applying for a loan (forget the Jeremie scheme). The banking system in Malta has so far shown no great interest in financing businesses in the rural environment, generally perceived as high risk. Applications for financing from the rural community face additional guarantee requests and higher charges for loans, and there is even a tendency in the banking sector to reduce activity in the rural environment due to its low profitability.

So having said all this, it is not a moment too soon for Mepa to announce a public consultation process to amend its policies regarding ODZ, to facilitate the redevelopment of existing farm buildings into agro-tourism establishments or visitor attractions. Mepa expects that the development of such properties will not lead to the loss of fertile, good quality agricultural land or affect valleys, cliff-sides, scheduled properties or other sites of ecological, geological, archaeological, cultural or historical importance.

The new policy being drafted by Mepa is also aimed at allowing the redevelopment or rehabilitation of pre-1967 farm buildings while “eliminating visual intrusions on the rural scene”. This augurs well if the government gives it the importance it deserves and moves to license other existing farmhouses, applying the grading system used for hotels. It is recommended that new types of supporting programmes by Malta Enterprise can provide both reimbursable financing and soft loans, as is the case for manufacturing and ICT applications.

It is common knowledge that there is a certain degree of correlation between length of access to rural and agri-tourism products and services and geographical longitude and latitude. Malta has its own window of opportunity as the countries situated in the north can only provide rural and agri-tourism services and products for a short period of time. We do not suffer from the short daylight hours and severe climate conditions during the winter.

In Malta, as a semi-tropical country, rural and agri-tourism services can be provided almost all year round, although one could spare visitors the harsh summer weather. It is no surprise that in the Spanish island of Ibiza, the season lasts nearly all year round and in Spain itself there is a constant flow of tourists booked on agri-tourism schemes with most airlines, hotels and restaurants continuously enjoying the patronage of dedicated visitors. Poland is another example, with rural and agri-tourism holidays being regarded as a cheap alternative.

What could be more romantic than enjoying a visit to an old, traditional animal farm where a farmer keeps many different breeds of free range animals? Visits to places in Malta where chicken, tomato or pork processing is undertaken, or to wineries, can also be educative – with free sampling thrown in as a welcome gesture.

To conclude: after 60 years of mass tourism that started with the bucket and spade brigade of ex-British servicemen and their families returning to the island and now enjoys total arrivals (not including cruise liner day visitors) close to four times the local population is quite an achievement, and tourist spending has contributed close to 30 per cent of our GDP. On the one hand, local people regard mass tourism, as the numbers increase every year, as both a blessing and a curse: a curse due to the impact on the environment, local culture and society as a whole, and a blessing because it provides income and sustainable employment.

So there is no time to waste in diversifying and encouraging agri-tourism without putting too much pressure on natural resources or social and community values, thus allowing locals and visitors to interact positively and share common created experiences.

 

 

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The writer is a partner in audit and business advisory firm PKF

 

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