Wake-up call on agritourism

On a sustainable platform countries such as Italy, Switzerland and others have discovered the benefits of agritourism and enjoyed the arrivals of visitors who socially, economically, and environmentally enhance the contribution to the economy.

Agritourism around the Mediterranean 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.

What are the origins of agritourism?

It has a long history starting at the time of the rise of urban societies and the industrial revolution which has alienated town dwellers from agriculture since the early twentieth century, and created rural tourism as a temporary ‘return’ to nature for affordable family holidays and recreation.

It started slowly then but grew exponentially in Italy and other parts in Europe since the 1980’s, combining a blend of agriculture and tourism that offers farming communities, as well as tourists, substantial advantages.

These have proven to be socially, environmentally and economically beneficial to both groups. It has helped increase the revenues to farmers and directly contributed to the diversification of agriculture regarding the variety of fresh products and cemented the bond with clients, such as by offering rural restaurants where visitors can sample typical products made on the farm, and the hospitality of the farming community, folklore dancing and singing.

They get personally in touch with an experience which enhances the appreciation of the cultural, educational and sometimes recreational traits of the rural community. Taking Italy as an example, the agritourism sector is closely linked to the agro-food market and is therefore influenced by this trend, which is assisted directly by the government by grants to launch these ventures.

On a sustainable platform countries such as Italy, Switzerland and others have discovered the benefits of agritourism and enjoyed the arrivals of visitors who socially, economically, and environmentally enhance the contribution to the economy.

Governments have willingly allocated funds through their farm help funding schemes to assist farmers in renovating their properties to be suitable habitation for tourists. There are new forces in tourism however, driven by visitors’ interest in the environment and in tasting great recipes cooked from ingredients of 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 are energy efficient with modern mechanisms to collect and conserve water resources with the use of reverse Osmosis plants.

One may well ask how can Malta, with its limited countryside and a small farming community, ever justify the promotion of a new industry called agritourism?

The answer is that like we started a successful diving tourism sector we can also with modest expectations take the plunge and create new jobs in agritourism, especially in the winter months when bookings in hotels are low.

It goes without saying that we look back with nostalgia when in the sixties the Borg Oliver government started giving grants, tax holidays and seafront plots on the cheap to local investors willing to build restaurants and hotels. This was good planning and the vision of a sustainable industry was accomplished with thousands of jobs created.

Equally so, can the government allocate EU structural funds for capital investment targeted to erect rural structures to host winter visitors in farmhouses together with training of farmers in order to be able to provide a warm hospitality experience at their premises as happens in northern countries?

This may be a pipe dream for an armchair visionary to expect such a sector to grow and flourish, yet it is encouraging to note a new government policy positively looking to ease MEPA regulations on rural development. Cynics may reply that there is little sign that any progress has been reported in the media. Malta, itself a semi-tropical country, with its arid weather, can attract visitors to enjoy its mild winters during which rural and agritourism accommodation can be booked.

It is recommended that supporting schemes by Malta Enterprise can provide both reimbursable financing and soft loans as has been the case for manufacturing, ICT and export oriented applications. Transport Malta can also chip in to improve the basic infrastructure necessary for the laying of new roads to the countryside, extending facilities such as telecommunications, current water, sewage etc. to rural areas and outlying farm buildings.

MEPA is trying to soften previous rules which aimed to restrict rural embellishment by new rules for controlled building schemes in Outside Development Zones (ODZ) applicable when converting farms to hostels.

Past restrictions included among other things building swimming pools in ODZ areas limited in size to 52 square metres with paved areas restricted to half this size. Again the Malta Tourism Authority with its massive €35 million in annual marketing budget can start allocating a reasonable sum to help promote this sector, knowing that competition is stiff as the majority of agritourism visitors usually bypass Malta and book in nearby Italy and France.

Readers may argue that the required investment to renovate outlying farm buildings mostly in ODZ is considerable and owners of such properties face a hard time when applying for a loan (probably not qualifying for the Jeremie scheme).

The banking system in Malta has so far showed no great interest in financing businesses in the rural environment, generally perceived as high risk. Financing applications from the rural environment face additional guarantee requests and are charged higher financial costs for loans, and there is even a tendency in the banking sector to reduce the activity in the rural environment due to its low profitability.

So having said all this it comes not a moment too soon for MEPA to announce a drive to amend its policies on ODZ, to facilitate the redevelopment of existing farm buildings into agritourism establishments or visitor attractions.

MEPA hopes that future development of such residences will not result in loss of fertile, good quality agricultural land or affect valleys, cliff-sides, scheduled property or other sites of ecological, geological, archaeological, cultural or historical importance.

The new policy also aims at allowing the redevelopment or rehabilitation of pre-1967 farm buildings while “eliminating visual intrusions in the rural scene”. This augurs well if the government gives its deserved importance and moves to license other existing farmhouses, applying an appropriate grading system devised on the lines of the international practice for hotels.

The island has its blessing:- we do not suffer from short daylights and severe climate conditions during wintertime.

Naturally, one can save visitors the harsh summer yet it is surprising how in Ibiza in Spain, the season lasts nearly all the year round. In Spain there is a constant flow of tourists booked on agritourism schemes with most airplanes, hotels, and restaurants enjoying the patronage of dedicated visitors all the year round. Another example is Poland, where rural and agritourism are regarded as a low cost form of vacation.

What can be more romantic than enjoying a visit to an old traditional animal farm where a farmer keeps free range many different breeds of animals? Visits to places in Malta where chicken, tomato, cheese making, olive oil pressing, pork processing or wineries can also be educational experiences with free sampling thrown in as a welcome gesture.

An interesting development is the application of EU funds to filter sewage to industrial grade water which can be offered to farmers and local councils to continue with our afforestation efforts. Imagine the effect in summer if water fountains are installed in every village square, bestowing residents with a refreshing feeling especially during the hot summer months.

Looking back with nostalgia on 60 years of mass tourism one recalls how it started with the bucket and spade brigade of retired ex-British Services personnel returning to the island and how today the industry mushroomed enjoying total arrivals (not including the cruise liners day visitors) close to four times the local population.

This is quite an achievement due to promotional efforts by MTA and MHRA each year, seeing the contribution of the hospitality industry increasing gradually to reach close to 30% of our GDP.

Upon reflection success did not come without a cost to the heavy use of the environment and building of hotels on seafront plots in the central and northern areas. Perhaps now that the summer season is about to end there is no time to waste for MTA to issue guidelines to encourage agritourism, noting that care needs to be applied so as not to add pressure on natural resources or social and community values. Ideally the entire island can give a holistic experience to nature lovers who wish to spend their winter holidays with family in agritourism outlets.