The Malta Independent 21 October 2019, Monday

Gozo’s past, present and future

Justyne Caruana Sunday, 22 September 2019, 10:00 Last update: about 30 days ago

“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep” – William James, American philosopher

Gozo's allure, charm and beauty are assets that have withstood the test of time. The earliest mention of Gozo's enchantment and hospitality goes back into antiquity. Indeed, the Gozo of old was Homer's famed Ogygia, the abode of the nymph Calypso, who hosted the shipwrecked Ulysses and kept him captive for seven whole years.

Gozo's excellent harbours were also of great importance to the seafaring nations of the Mediterranean of old. Diodorus Sicilus writes that the Gozitan harbours were suited for sheltering ships and there were many mariners who used the island as winter quarters while waiting for favourable winds to transport them to distant shores.

 

Today's Gozo

Gozo's role in the 21st century is different to the Ogygia of old, but its famed beauty and hospitality remains. Tourists and visitors have taken the place of the mariners and merchants, and accessibility has become a top priority. In fact, in June the MV Nikolaos was a welcome addition to the Gozo Channel fleet and the vessel seems to be living up to its name. 'Nikolaos' is composed of two Greek words meaning, 'victor of people' or 'people's champion'.

Before the introduction of the fourth ferry, the hundreds of Gozitans that crossed the channel for work or study had to endure frustratingly long queues at the quays. Missing one trip meant more time lost in transit and this is exacerbated in summer, when Maltese and other holiday-makers travel to the island in droves.

Make no mistake, Gozitan society is open and welcoming. We value the presence of visitors and the appreciation they show of what the island has to offer. Gozo's historical and cultural heritage, pristine beauty and rich and varied attractions are magnetic and have a long-lasting effect on anyone who decides to spend time soaking up its old-world charm.

 

Tourism - a mainstay

For Gozo, tourism has an active role in the development and modernisation of the national economy and society at large. As a touristic destination, it is a place where visitors spend their free time and represents the catalyst link that unites, maintains and drives all sectors of the tourism industry: namely transport, accommodation, food and entertainment. Connectivity affects not only the quality of our lives but also our survival.

The contribution that tourism makes to our economy and, more specifically, to jobs in our communities, is crucial to our development. Gozo's double insularity means that the creation of jobs on the island is a long-standing issue with no easy solution. Opportunities do exist for more diversified economic activities, a case in point being Eco-Gozo's initiatives in the green economy and the advanced innovative technologies. However, we have to accept that tourism will remain a mainstay of our economy for the foreseeable future.

Much of Gozo's allure is its charm as a unique destination - distinct and separate from the more urbanised and chaotic Malta. In this respect, one could say that Gozo's double insularity is a blessing. It is no surprise, therefore, that in marketing terms Gozo offers a differentiated product and is significantly positioned as 'the most rewarding extra mile'.

 

The extra mile

I believe that we should be actively preserving the rewards promised by the 'extra mile' by looking very closely at the tourism product upon which the industry on the island is based and by planning in earnest for the long term. We cannot afford to transform Gozo into the 'most disappointing extra mile'.

We also need to identify the impact that tourism has on the island, particularly now that we have practically overcome the scourge of seasonality. A case in point is our present infrastructure on which we are working hard to upgrade, enhance and modernise in order to accommodate the ever-growing influx of visitors to our shores. It is my belief that we need to focus more on attracting higher-end, quality, niche tourism without neglecting the mass market and to spread arrivals as much as possible throughout the year.

 

Preserving and promoting

Apart from the undeniably beautiful topography, a central aspect of the unique visitor experience that characterises our island is the Gozitan way of life. The rhythm of life in our midst has a small island Mediterranean feel that is not only salubrious for us locals but is also much sought after by the discerning visitor. I believe that this unique and characteristic Gozitan vibe should be preserved, nurtured and enhanced. It is the fulcrum through which every other characteristic emanates. It is what gives us our unique cultural identity as Gozitans.

This concept should not be taken to mean that we must aspire to a backward, archaic way of life. What it means is that we embrace modernity whilst maintaining the character and stately peace and quiet for which the island is renowned.

This brings me to the issue of the proposed tunnel link between Gozo and mainland Malta. It has been argued that such a link cannot be implemented without averting the wholesale destruction of Gozo's environment and the Gozitan way of life. I would not brazenly subscribe to such a view without due reflection and a thorough consideration of the evidence, but I do feel that the proposition of such a link is something that we cannot afford to take lightly and capriciously.

 

Chain of benefits

The benefits of the link in shortening transit times, providing all-weather effectiveness and security of service must be considered against the environmental impacts, the potential disruptions and the effects on our tourism sector jobs. Another argument against the tunnel project is that Gozo would become a mere extension of Malta. Moreover, brutal, indiscriminate development, traffic mayhem and extensive resettlement of people from Malta to Gozo could wipe away the very heart and soul of the island.

I believe that this is an exaggerated and grotesque argument and although it is understandable, it will not happen because we will safeguard against such an upheaval. We are determined that Gozo will remain unique and pristine and we will wholeheartedly avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

 As I stated before, we have to look at the present and future needs of Gozo in order for us to become an economically stable and sustainable island. The tunnel project is still at the study and planning stage. In the meantime, an improved ferry service, with perhaps more routes, quicker transit times and an increased frequency of trips, will remain a priority.

The addition of MV Nikolaos to the Gozo Channel fleet is pointing the way. With a fast channel transit time of less than 15 minutes, this ferry has effectively reduced the hassle, frustration and, of course, the long interminable queues that plagued our quays for decades. It has changed the lives of Gozitans and visitors alike for the better. MV Nikolaos has indeed lived up to its name as the people's champion.

 

From myth to reality

It is my aim to further improve connectivity between the islands whilst safeguarding Gozo's special and unique environment and identity. The Ogygia of old was a welcoming, enchanting and indispensable safe harbour for ancient mariners. The Gozo of today will be a modern, tranquil Mecca for visitors from all walks of life: a place where they can relax and soak up the unique vibes that have become imprinted upon its people and surroundings over the millennia by the diverse cultures and civilisations that made our tiny island their home over the centuries.

Indeed, everything is connected... no one thing can change by itself!


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