The Malta Independent 11 August 2022, Thursday

Paradise lost: Overcrowding, overpricing destroying beauty of Blue Lagoon

Rachel Attard and Gabriel Schembri Sunday, 7 August 2016, 11:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

Overcrowding and overpricing at Comino’s Blue Lagoon have become the subject of several complaints, with visitors openly objecting to the high cost of hiring deckchairs and umbrellas, while the idyllic sea and beaches are, day after day, losing their appeal because of the congestion.

So far, the numbers show that Comino is still a great attraction for Maltese, Gozitans and tourists, but judging by the negative comments that are being posted by visitors on TripAdvisor and other social media networks, it will come as no surprise if the picturesque swimming spot loses its popularity.

Alerted to this situation, The Malta Independent on Sunday went on site to carry out its own investigation into the amount the beach concessionaires on the island are charging and to check if they are abiding by the stipulations in the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) tenders for the concessions.

It was easy to see that something is clearly wrong, judging by the fact that people were packed like sardines on the small beaches, with sunshades and deckchairs lined up side-by-side, so closely that it was practically impossible to move without elbowing the person on the next deckchair or treading on someone’s foot.

Upon checking the numbers, this newspaper discovered that there are nearly twice as many deckchairs on the beaches as the number stipulated in the contracts signed by the operators with the Malta Tourism Authority for the summers of 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Our visit to Comino

We arrived at Comino at around 9:30am. The main bay at the Blue Lagoon was almost empty and the blue deck chairs were only starting to be occupied as the first trips from Marfa arrived. The small number of people around at this time of the day made the bay as heavenly as it is depicted in the tourist brochures. But this paradise was soon lost.

In less than 30 minutes, the harmonious atmosphere at the lagoon was no more as the rocky beach suddenly became jam-packed with people, mostly tourists. Deckchair operators became busy, carefully distributing the beach goers to their carefully lined-up deckchairs, one deckchair literally touching the one next to it and the one in front. Bathers who tried to move their deckchairs were quickly reprimanded. Not even an inch of beach space could be lost.

By noon the Blue Lagoon was packed with people, pushing the more adventurous and better swimmers to carry their belongings on their backs and cross over to the other island, Cominetto, which is quieter.

The swimmers who are either unable or unwilling to cross the bay are constrained to take to the water carefully, trying hard not to touch anyone else. One bather described it as being like having a dip in the Ganges River, in terms of pure overcrowding, although it must be said that the waters of Comino are much clearer.

This situation persisted right through to late afternoon, when the boats start returning to Malta and Gozo. The luckier ones, those with their own boats, could stay longer and enjoy the real beauty of the area without the noise and confusion.

 

Number of deckchairs

There are three different operators in Comino’s three bays and the visitors choose where they want to sit. Area one is called the ‘Jetty’ and is basically close to where the boats coming from Malta or Gozo berth. Area two is called the ‘Beach’ and is the bay next to the Jetty; and area three is called the ‘Outrock’, and is situated a few metres away from Beach bay.

The MTA tender document, which was issued in April 2015, stipulated the number of deckchairs each operator is allowed to have. Clause 2.8.1 shows that areas one and three should each have 80 deckchairs and area two should have 70, making a total of 230. The same tender lays down that if the operator does not follow the procedures, “Any infringement ... is to be considered a breach of rules, and may lead to rejection of the tender”.

From our investigation, it is clear that the tender only stipulates the number of deckchairs allowed (230), without making any mention of sunshades (Table). A quick count from pictures taken by this newspaper last week shows that there are approximately 230 sunshades, each with two deckchairs underneath them. This means that the number of deckchairs is close to 460, double the number allowed. This makes the whole area crowded, noisy and lacking any privacy.

 

Overpricing

Overpricing is another issue that we found and this is also mentioned by tourists on TripAdvisor. Each area has a different price range with the approval of the MTA as per contract, but operators are breaching the pre-established prices by not making any distinction between half day and full day renting, and by charging extra for deckchairs and umbrellas placed closer to the sea.

The tender document itself says: “The grantee shall display the prices for the hire of sun-beds, deckchairs and umbrellas in full public view. Such prices shall not be higher than those indicated in the Grantee’s tender bid.”

The prices listed on these display boards are in fact higher than those established in the tender document.

During our visit we also noticed that no VAT receipts were issued to anyone paying for deckchairs and umbrellas – a punishable offence according to Maltese law.

 

Boats

Another factor creating mayhem in the Blue Lagoon is the number of boats coming in – and leaving later in the day – carrying day-trippers. These boats moor next to the Jetty bay with some playing loud music.

A number of reviews on TripAdvisor from both tourists and Maltese visitors who had been to the Blue Lagoon had the same views about this situation, mainly that the view is breathtaking and the crystal-clear water beautiful, but it is overcrowded and cramped, they were overcharged and the beach is noisy and dirty.

 

Santa Marija Bay

Apart from the Blue Lagoon area, there is another secluded beach in Comino which the MTA also mentions in its tender. This is Santa Marija Bay. As the aerial photos show, this bay is not as popular as the Blue Lagoon, so it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, either crowded or noisy. The operator there installs around 30 sunshades with space in-between. Reviews on TripAdvisor say that this bay is “Small, quiet beach 5 minutes (and 4 euro) from Blue Lagoon. Much less people, great for relax far from crowds with less picturesque view.” The operator here charges €22.50 for two deckchairs and a sunshade – in accordance with the contract with MTA – and if a booking is made beforehand on Facebook, it will be subject to a discount.

As stipulated in the tender, the MTA is “responsible for the monitoring of the Grantee’s compliance with all the conditions of this Permit. For the avoidance of all doubt, representatives of the Malta Tourism Authority shall have the right to inspect the Area at any time and the Grantee shall not hinder or obstruct such persons from carrying out such inspections in any manner whatsoever.”

 

Questions unanswered

This newsroom sent a number of questions regarding the situation to the MTA last Thursday and although our email was acknowledged, our questions had not been answered at the time of going to print. 

Interestingly, informed sources told us that on Friday, after this newsroom had sent its questions, enforcement officers were seen at the site.

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