Gozo needs to regain momentum | Chris Said

What could reawaken Gozo from its economic slump? Parliamentary Secretary and Gozitan MP Chris Said maintains the island's revival hinges on innovation and the next project on the table: the much-discussed island tunnel link.

Elected for the first time to a public office in 1993 as a council member of his home locality of Nadur, Chris Said is today considered one of Malta’s up-and-coming politicians belonging to a younger and politically-fresher generation. 

He has a strong foundation of local work beneath him, having served as Nadur Mayor between 1999 and 2008. He resigned to make the leap into national politics, and succeeded in being elected to parliament that same year.

Since then, he has served both in his official capacity as Parliamentary Secretary for Public Dialogue and Information within the Office of the Prime Minister, and also as an passionate spokesperson for Gozitan interests.

His hope for Malta’s smaller yet no-less-important sister island is tangible, and he bases his vision for the economic revival of Gozo on innovation.

“In many aspects, Gozo does not differ much from Malta,” he says, while also pointing out two major differences: Gozo’s status as Malta’s diminutive sister island, and how, despite adversities, Gozitans “have development a very sharp survivor’s instinct.”

“Nobody disputes that the typical ‘Għawdxi’ is hard-working,” he says. “This characteristic enabled him to thrive against all odds,” adding that what Gozo needs to keep going is momentum: “we need to embark on the next big step, fuelled by innovation.”

This next big step, Said says, is “a direct, fixed link to Malta” a clear reference to the much-discussed Malta-Gozo tunnel which would finally connect the two islands in a way that a ferry service never could.

Said maintains that such a tunnel would empower Gozitan entrepreneurs who “would not be afraid to invest his money in Gozo, and we would also be able to attract more Maltese and foreign investment.”

A lot is being heard about the feasibility of the tunnel, but how far along is the project from completion?

Said replies that work is well under way: Transport Malta is co-ordinating a preliminary study into the feasibility of the sub-sea tunnel, the international call for which was issued by European agency JASPERS, in conjunction with TM.

“Mott Macdonald’s bid was chosen and they started working on it as early as July,” Said says, adding that the preliminary study will be concluded later on this year.

“Their experts have been to Malta on various occasions, meeting Government, Transport Malta, stakeholders, representatives from different Gozitan organisations, and officials from various government entities.”

Said adds that the decision to press on will very much depend on the conclusion of the preliminary study: “Should the preliminary study point out insurmountable problems then the whole project might stop there.”

But should the study prove positive, Said says he plans to urge government to take the plunge – but only after considering the project’s various aspects.

Said is upbeat about the progress made, pointing out that he formally tabled the sub-sea tunnel proposal to cabinet only seven months ago. “Since then, government and Transport Malta commissioned the preliminary study and we have had some very good consultation meetings.”

He also welcomed how the European Commission included any possible road-link between Gozo and Malta into its Ten-T network, “which means any future project will qualify for direct EU funding.”

Asked by when the studies and consultations be over, Said is however cautious.

“This is a major project,” he says, adding that “things have moved on at a fast pace and pretty smoothly as well.” He explains that his role is to ensure that the process does not stall and that the necessary decisions are made.

Said maintains that the ways Gozo will benefit from the tunnel are multi-fold.

“It will definitely increase Gozo’s accessibility,” he says, adding that so far many have been afraid to invest in Gozo because of the high importation and exportation costs incurred by Gozo’s geographical detachedness from Malta, which represent an added burden on Gozitan investment.

“Any permanent link between Gozo and Malta would represent an economic lifeline for our island,” which Said says would increase investment and, in turn, bring in more jobs. Ultimately, he adds, “more Gozitans would be able to earn a living without leaving their island-home. “

On top of the economic ripple-effect, Said adds that a tunnel would drastically reduce waiting time for the ferry for students and workers commuting to Malta.

“But ultimately it will be the feasibility studies that will show us if this is true or not,” Said concedes. “Until then, my opinion will be based on a number of considerations which I have discussed thoroughly with various members of the Gozitan community, and which I have also decided to share with the general public.”

But what about concerns that the tunnel (and Gozo’s increased accessibility) will undermine the island’s rustic and far-flung appeal?

Said argues that Gozo’s character is ensured “so long as good planning decisions are taken by the competent authorities,” pointing out that despite the lack of a fixed connection over the past several decades, “bad planning decisions were still taken.”

At the same time, Said argues that “it is high time that we recognise the fact that in Gozo there are 30,000 individuals who want to contribute to their own personal development and who want to earn a living for their families.”

Said also adds that “it all boils down to sustainable development,” pointing out how increased investment in agri-tourism would allow the exploitation of Gozo’s current potential without impinging in any way on its rustic character.

The default alternative to proposed sub-sea Malta-Gozo tunnel is the Gozo Ferry, a service which tends to draw flak for occasional delays, considerable queues, and pricey fares for non-Gozitan commuters.

The most recent event to catapult the ferry service into the limelight again was the case of a Gozitan doctor whose priority ferry pass was revoked. Despite the fact that his patients had priority access onto the ferry, he did not, so his operations ended up having to be cancelled nevertheless.

Asked if there were any plans to restore the priority passes which the Gozo Channel withdrew, Said says such passes are the sole remit of the company.

“They are a company prerogative and they should remain so. For myself, I would respect any decision by Gozo Channel to withdraw my priority pass as member of parliament should it decide to do so, just as much as I respect Air Malta’s decision to withdraw any complementary tickets to past and present Prime Ministers, Chairmen, members of parliament and so forth.”

Asked if he feels that ferry rates are accessible to people of all income brackets, Said maintains that “the fares structure is fair and reasonable and reflects the needs of whoever uses it” and adds that the fares have remained unchanged for the past 13 years.

“Since then, we have introduced zero-fares for all elderly citizens – Maltese and Gozitan alike. All the elderly use the ferry without paying the fare. Doesn’t that make Gozo accessible to people of all income brackets?” he asks.

“The company is able to provide the night service and reduced rates to Gozitans and the Maltese elderly, thanks to the annual government contribution of €4.5 million annually as part of the public service obligation,” he says, adding that the ferries operate during the night, including during the winter months, despite running at a loss.

Said welcomed the announcement of a new Valletta Waterfront – Gozo Ferry service last month, saying that “any service connecting the two islands, provided that it is environmentally friendly and that does not impinge on the landscape of both islands, is welcome.”

As talk turns to tourism, one can’t help but note how the Gozitan tourism industry does not seem to be faring as well as one would hope. A recent survey by the Gozo Tourism Association found that the majority of tourism owners termed their performance during the first quarter of 2011 as ‘bad’, while 36.4% qualified their business performance as ‘fair’. 

Only 11.4% stated that their business was ‘good’, and 4.5% described it as ‘very good’.

Asked if he felt the figures reflected the true picture, Said points out that Gozitan tourism is still seasonal, and that summer undoubtedly remains a cash-cow for hotels and self-catering establishments.

Adding that Easter represents another seasonal tourism high – especially with regards to internal tourism – and how Easter was celebrated in late April this year, “it is only natural for GTA and some of its members to consider the first three months of the year as not being very good.”

He adds that almost half of the respondents in the same survey opined that their business was better or the same as last year.

Said also goes on to say that “the business community will always be lobbying for more initiatives which might help in attracting more tourism and in generating more business. That is what they should do.”

While noting that first indications for summer 2011 are that the Gozitan tourism industry performed well at the same level as last year, he however warns against complacency. “We must keep on striving to achieve higher levels of occupancy especially during the shoulder months. Everyone must play his part.”

He says that in this regard, government is helping local councils and NGOs to organise cultural and other activities during the period between October and May, citing the Astra and Aurora theatres, which have attracted hundreds of Maltese for opera performances for weeks on end, also pointing to Carnival and Christmas period activities.

“My Parliamentary Secretariat has helped in the organisation of sports activities with Maltese teams and athletes being invited to participate in football, basketball, waterpolo tournaments and in horse-racing meetings”.

“Initiatives are being taken. We just need to market them better.”

Said also underlines the importance of Maltese individuals with second homes in Gozo, as well as foreigners living on the island: “They invested their life-savings in property in Gozo. The Maltese with second homes visit Gozo regularly – some of them as much as every other weekend.  Most of the foreigners are permanent residents.  Both pump money into Gozo’s economy.”

“It is important that we continue giving them a good service,” he said, adding that Gozo’s charms can afford to be exploited “a great deal more” to attract more foreign retirees to our island.

Asked whether government is doing enough to attract tourists to Gozo or to market the island better as a getaway destination, Said is diffident.

“Government is already doing its fair share,” he says, adding that the island’s distinct character allows MTA and other stakeholders to market the island as a destination in its own right.

“In 2011, for the first time, government committed half a million euros for the direct marketing of Gozo. The results are encouraging.”

He also says how the Ministry for Gozo recently entered into an agreement with the Gozo Tourism Association, through which it will be providing direct financial support for GTA to employ a CEO on a full-time basis. A Director for Tourism in Gozo was also appointed. “I consider these to be steps in the right direction,” Said says.

Speaking of tourism and of Gozo’s attractions, Said had gone on record just before the 2008 election saying that the Hondoq Ir-Rummien Project was a positive thing for Gozo.

However, MEPA’s Environment Protection Directorate only recently dismissed an Environmental Impact Assessment as “unduly biased”, and recommended the project’s refusal.

Asked for a reaction, Said says the Local Plan for Gozo includes a specific policy on Ħondoq ir-Rummien and its environs. “This policy is clear enough and gives directions on what kind of development is permissible in the zone,” he says.

“I was and still am in favour of the rehabilitation of the disused quarry so long as the development that takes place reflects the Local Plan,” Said adds.

Despite Said’s positive outlook, Gozo is consistently struggling to retain its human resources, as those relatively few youth who pursue and graduate from tertiary education rarely remain in Gozo due to scant professional opportunities.

Said attributes this perpetual brain-drain to “successes achieved in the education sphere,” adding that over 1,000 Gozitans are currently reading for degrees at the University of Malta or following tertiary education in Malta.

“Up till 20 years ago only a few score of Gozitans pursued tertiary education,” Said says, adding that the numbers show that we have made great leaps forward in educating our youth, with the downside being that the new graduates seek employment with good salaries – be it in Malta or beyond.

To address this human resource haemorrhage, Said says government is working to attract more investment in fields which provide high value-added from financial services to technology, hoping that more Gozitans will opt to stay on their island-home.

This interview appeared in GozoToday

Alex Grech
i know that Chris Said together with Giovanna are capable to organise weekly carnivals in nadur, but beside that, is it really a tunnel that's going to solve gozo's economic stagnation?!?! what if the result show that the idea is impossible to materialize?!?! "Chris Said is today considered one of Malta’s up-and-coming politicians belonging to a younger and politically-fresher generation" if this is the future...then god help us all!
Tunnel ? and where are you going to get the money? just an election gimmick. .
Ghawdex irid wiehed bhal__ HITLER __biex forsi jitranga
Quite a jide at the Queen and at the success the PN has scored in Gozo. Par idejn sodi at their best. L-aqwa it tunnel!
Jaf ipoggi l-kliem it-tifel. Dan wara tmexxija ta 20 sena tal-Partit tieghu. Verament Ghawdex m'hemmx xoghol u veru wkoll li z-zghazagh Ghawdxin kellhom jitilqu lejn Malta u l'hinn minnha biex jahdmu. Izda mhux ghal pagi ahjar Dr Said - ghamlu hekk ghax Ghawdex ma hemmx xoghol. Ara fi zmien it-terrur tas-70's l-Ghawdxin baqghu Ghawdex ghax kien hemm ix-xoghol. Fabbrikki ppakjati bil-haddiema. Illum ippakjati bil-grieden. Dik id-differenza bejn gvern u iehor. Tmur Ghawdex tahsbek qieghed f'xi paqjjiz hiereg minn xi gwerra. Hmieg, trab, hitan imwaqqa, toroq imharbta u ohrajn maqghluqa. Babilonja shiha. Dr Said, minflok nibnu hafna kastelli fl-arja mhux ahjar nibdew minn xi haga semplici u nibdew nirrangaw id-dizastru ta toroq li hemm Ghawdex. Hondoq verament ghandu bzonn jitranga imma mhux jinbena. Nafu li hemm kuntratturi li kieku jistghu jmorru tajjeb hafna imma Ghawdex in generali jitlef hafna. Ghawdex irid ix-xoghol sostenibbli ghaz-zghazagh tieghu u jridu issa u mhux hafna paroli, paroli u paroli. Bilhaqq il-Ministru ghal Ghawdex Giovanna ghada maghna jew?
At least he is admitting that because of GonziPN Gozo has lost its momentum. This is totally against what the Minister for Gozo (Giovanna Debono) is constantly saying. Seems they do not even agree with each other.
BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA.......................................Paroli ghandna kieku!!!!