Steeped in myth and charm, Gozo has long been considered the inspiration for the backdrop of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, in which the besotted nymph Calypso kept Odysseus captive for several years. Often colloquially known as ‘Calypso’s Isle’, this peaceful, mystical backwater of the Maltese archipelago boasts a rugged landscape, a spectacular coastline, and some of the Mediterranean’s best dive sites and hiking trails.
Such unique appeal has for years allowed Gozo – one of Malta’s two sister islands – to attract a discerning type of tourist, particularly one looking for an alternative Mediterranean destination that is less-developed yet retains all the classic character and climate you’d expect of the region.
Though the abiding association with Greek mythology has only helped add to its natural allure, Gozo’s tourism industry today can count on a more intentionally-coveted distinction. That’s because in 2018, the island was named the best Green Destination in the Mediterranean at the Sustainable Top 100 Awards for the third-year running.
In a modern global consumer market that increasingly values sustainability and eco-friendliness, this is no small recognition for the tiny island. Furthermore, it is an acknowledgement that is richly deserved says Dr Justyne Caruana, Minister for Gozo.
“Our greatest responsibility is to unleash Gozo’s potential in a responsible and a sustainable way. It’s a place that has huge potential, but obviously we have to be responsible enough to look after it and nurture it,” she emphasises. “We are managing to attract the numbers, but at the same time we are juggling quite well so we can distribute them evenly.”
“In Gozo, we are very green conscious,” explains the Minister. “Throughout the Eco-Gozo strategy we are promoting the greenness of Gozo, the rurality, and also the sustainability.” Copyright: South EU Summit
Building an Eco-Friendly Island
To fulfil their environmental responsibility while simultaneously balancing growing tourist numbers (a record 5.4 million visited in 2017), the Maltese authorities have been steadfastly executing a lauded ‘Eco-Gozo Strategy’.
The strategy’s vision to become an ‘eco-island by 2020’ is keenly supported by a committed sustainable community amongst Gozo’s just 30,000 inhabitants. Since being launched in 2010, the initiative has been vastly successful in reducing carbon and water footprints, as well as in protecting its resources and culture through a range of educational, economic, and social initiatives.
“In Gozo, we are very green conscious”, explains the Minister. “Throughout the Eco-Gozo strategy we are promoting the greenness of Gozo, the rurality, and also the sustainability.”
In this respect, one of the major challenges considering Gozo’s small-island status and the unprecedented influx of visitors has been the growing issue of waste management and the pressing global problem of plastic pollution in particular.
“We are continuously coming up with new ways to manage this massive challenge especially in view of our booming tourism”, says Caruana. “When you have this increase in population you need different measures, and that is why we are investing so heavily.”
For instance, to tackle the issue of plastic and other waste, Gozo has become one of six provincial partners to pilot the Consume-Less project, a co-financed scheme alongside the EU’s European Regional Development Fund. The initiative aims to integrate waste management with clean energy and water strategies in order to promote sustainable tourism models in Mediterranean areas, and Gozo has offered a perfect case study for the ongoing trial.
“The Consume-Less project has been spreading throughout Gozo”, the Minister explains. “We are very, very concerned about our valleys, for example. Over the years a lot of debris and a lot of plastics have accumulated, and this is endangering not only our natural environment in terms of what you see, but also the biodiversity and the ecosystem. So, we’ve been able to tap EU funds to regenerate our rural zones through the programme, reinvigorating those parts of Gozo affected.”
“That is why we are describing the tunnel as a game changer. The impact on the economy of Gozo is expected to be in the range of a growth of 10 per cent per year for the first few years of operation, due to lower commuting times, better interconnections with international air and sea travel modes, and a diversification of economic activities”, says Minister Caruana. Copyright: South EU Summit
Connecting Gozo to the World
A further challenge for Gozo relates not only to how it can maintain and improve the sustainability of the island from an environmental perspective, but how it can simultaneously sustain the growth of a tourism industry upon which the local economy relies. Crucial to this will be the need to address its infrastructure constraints, both in terms of physical and ICT connectivity. Investment in these key areas is considered not just imperative to attracting more visitors, but also the development of other aspects of the local economy to lessen the dependence on its dominant tourism sector.
“With regards to the [economic] gap that exists between mainland Malta and Gozo, it’s mainly due to the physical constraints because we are an island, and there is a double insularity factor as we are at the periphery”, explains Caruana. “We are working on connectivity on various fronts. For example, we are investing to improve our ferry service. We are also investing in ICT infrastructure; our fibre optic cable project will enable us to attract ICT related businesses, such as in fintech.”
Perhaps most significantly, there is then the proposed Malta-Gozo underwater highway tunnel, a long-debated and controversial development that, when completed, will be the biggest infrastructural project in the country’s history. Controversies include the tunnel’s huge cost, concerns regarding its design, and the potential geological and environmental impact of its construction. However, the Minister says that if such matters can be adequately addressed, the tunnel could be a game changer for Gozo and its partially segregated economy and population.
“The tunnel project has been discussed for many years, but once implemented it will address different issues. First and foremost, the migration of the locals”, she says. “In Gozo we have the brain-drain phenomenon with our young people finding opportunities in Malta and settling there. This is having an adverse effect on Gozo, even with regards to generational issues, because we have a huge percentage of our population which is aging. We have to find ways to bring our young people back.”
Besides the return of its educated youth, the tunnel could also potentially bring in much needed investment for local SMEs, and injections of foreign capital too.
“That is why we are describing the tunnel as a game changer. The impact on the economy of Gozo is expected to be in the range of a growth of 10 percent per year for the first few years of operation, due to lower commuting times, better interconnections with international air and sea travel modes, and a diversification of economic activities. More than that, the tunnel project is also viewed as an integral part of our sustainable development plan for the island, in no way harming the environment with the proper plans put in place.”
Gozo’s economic growth potential and its heightened international reputation for sustainability is not going unnoticed by the country’s central authorities. Caruana – a proud Gozitan – says while the government on the main island of Malta has in the past been guilty of lacking focus on Gozo’s development, it is now thankfully receiving the attention it requires. This was highlighted by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s recent public declaration that Gozo is a “place to do business smartly”.
“The reason for this is that – being small – we can adapt more, we are more resilient, and we have different initiatives that are tailor made in certain cases”, says the Minister.
“For a lot of time, Gozo was not at the centre of the government’s attention, but this government is giving a lot of importance to Gozo. We are allocating funds and we have a very important strategy to deliver”, Caruana concludes. “Gozo is unique and vibrant and, at the moment, we are projecting ourselves as the place to be – both for business and leisure purposes. The vision for the island is perhaps best captured in three words: idyllic, connected, and innovative.”