Gozo airstrip re-exhumed in development strategy

Gozo Regional Development Authority consultation document re-exhumes controversial airstrip proposal and suggests expansion of Mġarr Harbour, cruise liner berth at Marsalforn

The Gozo heliport at Ta' Lambert had been proposed as the location of an airstrip for fixed-wing aircraft in the past
The Gozo heliport at Ta' Lambert had been proposed as the location of an airstrip for fixed-wing aircraft in the past

A controversial proposal to construct an airstrip in Gozo has been re-exhumed in a consultation document by the Gozo Regional Development Authority.

The GRDA is a regulatory authority chaired by Gozitan entrepreneur Michael Grech.

The airstrip had been originally proposed by Eddie Fenech Adami’s government in the 1990s and aborted by Alfred Sant in one of his first decisions upon Labour’s re-election in 1996.

The GRDA was set up in 2020 to prepare a regional development strategy for Gozo and to oversee its implementation.

A bête noire for both environmentalists and Labour in the 1990s due to the inevitable loss of agricultural land, the airstrip project was briefly considered by the Muscat administration, which had commissioned a report on its impact but never published. 

Oblivious to the carbon footprint of air travel and the inevitable impact on the landscape, the latest document identifies the establishment of a fixed-wing airlink between Gozo and the mainland that “respects the natural environment” as one of Gozo’s infrastructural priorities. 

“Such a link should complement the sea link, whilst providing a convenient and less time-consuming inter-island transfer for tourists and Gozitans alike between Malta International Airport and Gozo.”

But the document fails to identify the location for such a development. Previously the airlink was proposed on agricultural fields near the helipad in Ta’ Lambert in Xewkija.

The same strategy proposing an airstrip in Gozo, whose carbon footprint could be considerable, also proposes an innovative pilot project to reduce households’ carbon footprint in Gozo through a digital application.

The app would earn Gozo residents and visitors, credits by using environmentally friendly forms of transport including walking, bikes and public transport operated by alternative fuels.

Other controversial infrastructural projects included in the strategy are the “inclusion of berthed facilities” in a proposed breakwater in Marsalforn, an alternative road to the Mġarr harbour and a ring-road around Victoria.

The document says that studies for these projects should include a “regional impact assessment.”   

Curiously the document only makes one single reference to the planned undersea tunnel between Malta and Gozo, by saying that this “could be part of a long-term strategy” to address Gozo’s connectivity challenges by addressing “the inherent problems experienced by individuals and enterprises based in Gozo”.

Expanding Mġarr Harbour

The GRDA is proposing expanding Mġarr Harbour
The GRDA is proposing expanding Mġarr Harbour

But while underlining the commitment for a tunnel, the document also proposes the expansion of the Mġarr Harbour through the construction of new berths, widening of the quay area, sea reclamation, a new breakwater and a marina on the east side of the harbour. 

Moreover, the possibility of diversifying some of the current services to “a newly constructed port” at Marsalforn is mooted as a way of alleviating Mġarr Harbour from some of the port activity underway.

Crucially this “might include cruise berthing facilities”.

The PA is currently assessing an application envisaging the construction of two gigantic breakwaters and submerged groynes to strengthen coastal defences and replenish the depleted Marsalforn beach. One of the proposed breakwaters at il-Ponta ta’ Santa Marija will extend out from the coast across 400sq.m, while another breakwater located at il-Menqa will attach to the existing jetty on the eastern side of the bay, extending its the footprint by 1,000sq.m.

With regards to planning, the Gozo document vaguely states that “green open spaces between villages”, which it describes as “Gozo’s green lungs” should be safeguarded.

But it makes no reference to the need for a change to local plans to stop the current onslaught of five-storey developments in the outskirts of Gozo’s towns and villages. 

A chapter on ‘Spatial Planning’ foresees the development of an “ecological multi-level car park” to address parking shortages in Victoria and Mgarr “designed in such a way that mitigates its visual impact” and an “extensive programme” to remove electrical and other wires from building facades.

TIMELINE: The Gozo airstrip saga

The airstrip saga dates back to the 1990s when an application was presented by the army to develop an airstrip in Gozo, prompting protests by Alternattiva Demokratika and green NGOs.

Stopping the application for the Gozo airstrip was one of Alfred Sant’s first decisions as prime minister in 1996, after withdrawing the country from NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme and freezing EU membership. 

After being dropped by Sant, the project was put on the back-burner by Eddie Fenech Adami after he was re-elected in 1998. 

While not excluding the project completely, former tourism and environment minister Mario de Marco raised doubts on its sustainability. “One also needs to consider whether an airstrip in Gozo and enhanced accessibility can actually impact negatively the perception of the island that lures tourists to it,” de Marco told MaltaToday in 2010. 

The heliport at Ta' Lambert
The heliport at Ta' Lambert

Before the general election in February 2013, Joseph Muscat declared that the Gozo airstrip was “not a priority”, and that a helicopter service and a fast-ferry service between Mġarr and Valletta would be considered instead.  

But in a consultation meeting in July 2013 the tourism ministry announced that the government was considering a new 400-650m airstrip in Gozo in the Ta’ Lambert area.  

In November 2013, the government confirmed that talks were ongoing with an “Italian company” on an air-link between Malta, Gozo and Sicily, and funds for a study on an airstrip were included in the national budget.

Plans were also forwarded to Brussels for a 900-long rural airfield in Gozo with the aim of tapping into EU funding for the estimated €14 million project. 

The airstrip – capable of handling both internal flights and air traffic from the surrounding regions – was meant to be completed by 2017. The document sent to the EU had stated that a new airstrip could more than double Gozo’s tourist arrivals. 

In March 2014, Joseph Muscat announced that the government was considering the construction of a grass airstrip in Gozo but the government would first need to evaluate the environmental impact.

But the completed feasibility study has never been published or presented to parliament. Following the backlash on proposed ODZ development in Żonqor, the airstrip disappeared from government’s radar.