MTA – a driver for agritourism

Governments in Europe have willingly allocated funds to farms through schemes to assist farmers in renovating their properties to become a suitable habitation for tourists.

Rural tourism provides a temporary ‘return’ to nature for affordable family holidays and recreation.
Rural tourism provides a temporary ‘return’ to nature for affordable family holidays and recreation.

Agritourism around the Mediterranean is a much more recent phenomenon than in Northern Europe, where it has developed into a sizeable industry in Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states.

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

It started slowly then, but grew exponentially in Italy and since the 1980s spread to other parts in Europe, combining a blend of agriculture and tourism that offers substantial advantages to farming communities as well as tourists. These encounters have proven to be socially, environmentally and economically beneficial to both groups.

It has helped increase farmers’ revenues and directly contributes to the diversification of agriculture in the variety of fresh products and helping cement a bond with clients, such as the opening of restaurants in rural areas where visitors can sample typical products made on the farm, enjoy the hospitality of the farming community, and take part in festivals held around folklore dancing and singing.

Here visitors get in touch with a unique experience which enhances the appreciation of  the cultural, educational and sometimes recreational traits of the rural community. Taking Italy as an example, the agri tourism sector is closely linked to the agro-food market and is therefore influenced by this trend which is adequately assisted by the government through grants.

Governments in Europe have willingly allocated funds to farms through schemes to assist farmers in renovating their properties to become a 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 high quality of organic food.

One example in Europe has been the Bio-Hotel movement, which was founded in 2001 in Austria with new 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 and PV structures.

Readers may well ask if Malta, with its limited countryside and a small farming community, can ever justify the promotion of 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 tourist arrivals are low.

This is an ideal occasion for MTA to fill in the low arrival rates in the low season. It goes without saying that as when in the sixties the Borg Oliver government started giving grants, tax holidays and seafront plots on the cheap for investors willing to build restaurants and hotels, so can the present government direct the use of EU funds for capital investment targeted to develop rural spaces together with training of part time farmers in order to fill vacancies in this hotel sub sector.

Transport Malta will also chip in to improve the basic infrastructure necessary to the setting up of other economic activities, such as extending transportation and telecommunications, current water, sewage etc. to rural areas and outlying farm buildings. MEPA started to soften restrictive rules on building schemes in ODZ applicable when converting farms to small hotels.

Such restrictions include among other things building swimming pools limited in size to 50 square metres with paved areas restricted to half this size. And the Malta Tourism Authority, with its impressive €35m annual marketing budget, can start allocating a reasonable sum to help promote this sector, knowing that competition is stiff in this sector.

It is a common fact that agritourism visitors tend to ignore Malta and book in nearby Italy, Switzerland or France. The investment needed to renovate outlying farm buildings is not cheap 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 shown no great interest in financing businesses in the rural environment, generally perceived as high risk. Financing applications for the rural development face additional guarantee requests and are charged higher interest rates and there is even an unwritten law in the banking community to pre-judge rural hotels as high risk due to 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 outside development zones (ODZ), to facilitate the redevelopment of existing farm buildings into agro-tourism establishments or visitor attractions.

Mepa expects the future development of such residences not to 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 by MEPA is also aimed at allowing the redevelopment or rehabilitation of pre-1967 farm buildings whilst “eliminating visual intrusions in the rural scene”.

This augurs well if the government gives it top priority and moves to license existing applications by farmhouses. It is recommended that new types of supporting programmes by Malta Enterprise can provide both reimbursable financing and soft loans as is the case for manufacturing, ICT and export oriented applications.

Malta has its own window of opportunity as competing countries situated in the north of Europe can only provide rural and agritourism services and hospitality for a limited period of time. Luckily we do not suffer from the short daylights or severe climate conditions during wintertime.

In Malta with its moderate winters, farm holidays can be promoted, although one can spare visitors the harsh summer days, yet it is surprising how the agritourism season in Ibiza Island lasts nearly all the year round. In Spain there is a constant flow of tourists booked on agritourism schemes with most airlines, hotels, and restaurants enjoying the patronage of dedicated visitors all the year round. Quoting another example in Poland, rural and agritourism are both regarded as a popular yet low cost form of vacation for families.

What can be more romantic than enjoying a visit to an old traditional animal farm where a farmer rears different breeds of free range animals? Visits to places in Malta where the chicken, tomato, or pork processing is undertaken, or wineries, can also be educative with free sampling thrown in as a welcome gesture. Ideally the goal of future Agritourism farms in Malta and Gozo is to educate and promote sustainable rural development while offering hands-on experience meeting farmers and their families. 

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

To conclude, 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 it is interesting to reflect how 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 with merit equally due to MTA and MHRA - tourist spending is gradually increasing to reach close to 30% of our GDP. It is true that success did not come without a cost to the heavy use of the environment and building of hotels on pristine seafront plots. Locals regard mass tourism as both a threat and an opportunity; a threat due to its impact on the environment and local culture and society, but also an opportunity because the industry provides a good contribution to GDP and sustainable employment.

So there is no time to waste for MTA to start issuing guidelines to rural property owners to encourage investment in agritourism structures, noting that care needs to be applied so as not to add undue pressure on natural resources or social and community values, but equally important opening a golden opportunity for locals and visitors to interact positively and share common experiences in natural ambience of agritourism outlets.