Gozo airstrip back on Labour's agenda

Airstrip now a priority in Labour's plans for Gozo, a spokesperson for Gozo Minister Anton Refalo says.

While before the general election Joseph Muscat declared that an airstrip in Gozo will not be a "priority" for the Labour government, a spokesperson for Gozo Minister Anton Refalo confirmed that the development of an airstrip is being actively considered.

During a pre-electoral visit to Gozo on 16 February, Muscat declared that an airstrip was not a priority for the Party, but that a helicopter service, along with a fast ferry service between Mgarr and Valletta, would be considered.

But on 11 October of this year, ETC board chairman Alfred Grixti announced that discussions with an Italian company had started on an airlink between Malta, Gozo and Sicily.

The announcement was made during an ETC board meeting held in Gozo in the presence of Gozo Minister Anton Refalo.

A spokesperson for Gozo Minister confirmed that while no final decision has been taken however "all options are under consideration, including that of an airstrip".

"Any course of action will be undertaken with the full involvement of all stakeholders, including the public in general, with the final aim being that of overcoming the constraints that have limited the socio-economic development of Gozo," the spokesperson said.

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 abandoned by Eddie Fenech Adami 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 writing was already on the wall when in February 2010 Roderick Galdes - then shadow minister for planning - had already announced that the development of an airstrip is one of the options a Labour government would consider to ensure better connectivity between Malta and Gozo.

But following criticism, subsequently the party backtracked on its plans after environmental NGOs and Labour MP Justyne Caruana reiterated their opposition to the proposal.

One major obstacle to the project is the presence of archeological remains in the vicinity of Ta' Lambert, the site identified for the project since the mid-90s. These remains have been compromised by illegal dumping. According to a study by the Museums Department, in the mid-90s, an archaeological assessment of the land earmarked for the airstrip proved "virtually impossible".

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has called for an environment impact assessment if an application to extend the Ta' Lambert airstrip in Gozo is presented.
The airstrip is actually considered as part of the Gozo-Comino local plan, but investigations must be carried out on the development's impact before any decision is taken. MEPA will have to assist government in drafting the terms of reference for a study which would have to explore alternatives to a hard runway such as, for example, the use of a seaplane.
It also states that no concrete evidence exists to demonstrate that a fixed wing service would be viable.

And despite the impression given by business lobbies that Gozitans are desperate for an airstrip, a MaltaToday survey conducted in July 2006 showed that the islanders are equally divided on whether an airport should be developed to link the two islands by air. 

Prime Minister says accessibility a key issue for Gozo

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Tuesday said that creating accessibility between Malta and Gozo was a "key issue" for the government

The prime minister was speaking at a meeting with the Gozo Regional Committee at Castille, in which he said that Gozo was a priority for the government because of the high potential that it offers.

"This government wants to improve the systems of accessibility between Malta and Gozo. This could mean improving the Gozo Channel Service or by introducing other means of accessibility. We must, however, do our homework first before making any decisions. Environmental and economic considerations must always be put into the equation," he said.

The President of the Committee, Michael Grech, said that it hoped that Gozo would not be treated as being inferior to Malta, saying that the island had its own challenges which required different tactics.

Muscat, however, reassured Grech that Gozo was of utmost importance for government.

"The island of Gozo is a priority for this government. Our aim is to bring foreign investment to the island, as well as creating jobs for Gozitans. I am convinced that the upcoming budget will allow for this to happen," he said.

While acknowledging that the committee was in favour of an airstrip in Gozo, he said that a short-term and medium term study had to be carried out first, with particular importance given to the environmental and economical issues.

Muscat also confirmed that a helicopter operator had expressed an interest in starting up a transport service between the two islands, but he said that the government was against such a service being run on a chartering basis, insisting that such a service should have a set schedule.

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An airstrip on Gozo is needed as much as a bridge, and far less a tunnel. Simply improve the sea service and part-demolish that garish, ugly, New York style embarkation port at Mgarr (Giovanna's crowning glory project). When Gozitans think big, they really go overboard. Reason being their insularity, and they possess too much (untaxed) money for their own good. Therefore another suggestion to PM/MOF would be to despatch their (all of them) tax inspectors over there. For two reasons (1) a very fertile training ground of how to.... (2) secondly they should come back with a huge cache, enough to fill quite a few budgetary holes.