The ‘Will it/Will it not’ debate on the Gozo Tunnel has been reignited once again, with the establishment of a Front for the Gozo Tunnel and new Gozitan stakeholders coming forward in favour of the project. In what can essentially be described as the ‘Not yet started Sagrada Famiglia of Malta’, I am presenting seven reason why I think the Gozo Tunnel project is a bad idea, and why it is not really an essential priority.
1 – It will have a negative impact on the Gozo tourism product
As can be observed from NSO statistics, there is a steady increase in the number of domestic and foreign tourists visiting Gozo every year, so tourism is continuously on the rise. There is an average annual increase of 3,000 individuals booking accommodation in Gozo, while Gozo Channel trends indicate a steady annual increase as well.
People want to go to Gozo, and the demand is so far being well met by the current Gozo Channel Ferry service. In addition, one needs to understand that the Gozo product is inherently very diverse from that of the island of Malta; Gozo is about tranquillity, nature and unspoilt rural heritage. Malta is more about a bustling nightlife and entertainment scene, high quality restaurants, shopping, and all the other historical and cultural stuff as well. Gozo will not be Gozo if we start turning it into Malta, it is as simple as that.
As argued in local newspapers, Critics had warned that the tunnel could have a negative impact on Gozo’s pristine environment as it would make it more prone for development. Gozitan MP Chris Said argued that such an issue has nothing to do with the tunnel, since bad planning is symptomatic of the Maltese mindset. Well Dr Said, what do you honestly think will happen once there is a permanent link between the two islands – naive much?
2 – The justification is extremely weak
From the same Times of Malta article, Front coordinator Beppe Galea said that “the tunnel would address social and economic challenges as it would give Gozitans the same work and study opportunities enjoyed by the Maltese”. I think this statement is unjustified and frankly silly. Last I checked, Gozitans are citizens of Malta and enjoy the same rights and privileges as students from the island of Malta. The following is a list of subsidies that Gozitan students studying in Malta receive:
- €1,200 subsidy (three instalments of €400)
- Student subsidy for Gozo channel use
- €300 increase in annual subsidy from 2016
- A potential new rent subsidy
- A high stipend of around €1,400
- Annual Maintenance grant (available to all Maltese students)
While I appreciate that it must be a pain to have to live in Malta during the course of a study programme, these subsidies are a great incentive to attend the University of Malta, especially when one considers the fact that students from the island of Malta only receive a fraction of the above amounts (only a stipend an an annual maintenance grant), while the costs attributed to living are generally covered by their families.
In addition, out of a population of just over 37,000 people, there cannot be more than say 5,000 Gozitans that make the regular journey back and forth, so if this tunnel is being constructed to accommodate such a small pool of people, than no thanks and stop being selfish.
3 – Lack of job opportunities you say?
You cannot expect to be Gozitan and work as in a technical and high earning post with big firms or practices when these are based in the island of Malta. This is not an issue of whether we should encourage businesses to open up in Gozo (I am all for that!), but such business will generally be concentrated in or around a country’s capital city, as is the case in most major European countries. If you are British and you expect to find a good job, you move to London. If you are German and live in a small town, you move to the closest metropolitan city. This is the same situation with Gozo unfortunately – if you want to get a job good job, you have to find it in Malta.
And I am saying this with the knowledge of having had to move abroad for better employment prospectives, since I was effectively drowning in a vast ocean of scientific and environmental job opportunities in Malta.
4 – What about the seabed between Malta and Gozo?
Who cares about the environment in Malta anyway? Wait, did someone mention an Environmental Impact Assessment? NEXT!
(Read this article about the lack of geological studies being carried out before a feasibility study)
5 – It is a gross waste of public funds
Studies have so far indicated that the tunnel would come at an estimated cost of about €300 million, with no indication who would be footing the bill. There will most definitely have to be a part of this sum that will have to come from the public purse, depending on which Chinese company wins the contract (or will it be a secret contract??). This project will definitely be a waste of public funds, because it will only serve to make the lives of a couple of thousand Gozitans easier since tourism is still growing at the moment.
6 – The Gozo Ferry service is not that bad!
No seriously, it is really not that bad compared to other forms of public transport. I have used this ferry service countless times over the past years and it has always been efficient and reliable. As to the arguments put forward by Gozitans Students’ Organisation GUG, about how a scheduled visit to Gozo by the Queen and other CHOGM dignitaries being cancelled due to bad weather, can we please dial it back on the hysteria.
Unless there is Gozo Channel operator that has acquired the powers of weather manipulation, when it gets windy DEAL WITH IT. Such an occurrence is seldom, so you just cannot use the weather as an excuse to justify the construction of this tunnel. How about we also build a bridge to mainland Europe when it get so stormy that planes cannot land or depart at the Malta International Airport?
If regularly travel back and forth between Gozo and Malta for work or study, you should have the good sense to plan ahead and inform employers or schools that you might have to miss that day due to bad weather. With this respect, the government should provide incentive for businesses to allow teleworking and special leave for Gozitans that cannot make the journey to work as a result of bad weather.
7 – It will most probably be a secret/corrupt deal
Here comes another Zonqor Point, White Rocks, Cruise terminal situation where the government signs a secret deal with some foreign investor. Also, LOLZ at the Gozo Minister proposing a referendum in which Gozitan votes should be given more weight. Cue my favourite Cersei Lannister meme of 2015:
As much as I love Gozo, and I respect the effort that Gozitans have to make to travel between islands, the Malta-Gozo tunnel will essentially be a waste of public funds that will only benefit 8.38% of the entire Maltese population. The sheer economic and environmental costs of such a project does not justify making the life of a small transient Gozitan population better. Instead of wasting time trying to turn Gozo into Malta, the government should invest more of its efforts into making Gozo better than it already is.
Building more links to Malta would be beneficial, but these need to preserve the integrity and individuality of Gozo. There is no need for a tunnel or cruise terminal that are being suggested under the guise of job creation and economic improvement. A good opportunity would be to open up the ferry market and end the monopoly of Gozo Channel, and include more harbours around the island of Malta which provide direct links to Gozo.
In addition, please develop the Gozo brand – I had actually met an American friend a couple of years ago that mentioned that she went on a yoga and wellbeing retreat in Gozo for a week and absolutely loved it. Why is this package not being actively promoted?
Because such ideas have no potential to polarise voters, and a project in Malta will not be politically relevant unless it can be used to swindle a couple of votes in a party’s favour.
Let us for a second stop and think rationally about this issue please. A project of this magnitude does not just belong to Gozitans and it should also include the voices of stakeholders from the island of Malta. The fact that it is already being framed in public discourse as a project for Gozo is worrying and discouraging.