Agrotourism Gozo Style – Desmond Zammit Marmara
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Today, everybody recognises the crucial need for a small country like ours to exploit to the maximum its very limited resources. Agricultural land is a declining resource in the Maltese Islands and work in agriculture is a calling that is being shunned by many of the younger generation so that today, the vast majority of workers in the agricultural sector work on a part-time basis. However, there is one particular area of agriculture that still has plenty to offer Malta’s economy and that is agrotourism.
It is indeed a pity that agrotourism is still in its infancy here in the Maltese Islands. The European Union has promoted policies that support agrotourism. Some EU Mediterranean countries are reaping great dividends from agrotourism which has become one of the pillars of their economies. One can mention the Veneto region of Italy where agrotourism is being incorporated into farming operations with an emphasis on the marketing of high-value foods linked to the region’s historical, cultural and social traditions.
There have always been plans on how to develop agrotourism in the Maltese Islands. Noel Farrugia, Alfred Sant’s Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries in the ill-fated 1996-98 Labour Government and the mastermind behind the implementation of the monumental Chadwick Lakes Project, was on the point of embarking on a nationwide project of sustainable agrotourism when the 1998 Labour electoral defeat nullified all his efforts. In later years, successive Nationalist administrations have shown their willingness to embark on such agrotouristic projects but the tangible results have been rather disappointing.
I have often had long debates with several people interested in agrotourism and one big problem which they all mention is the fact that agricultural land has become very sparse in Malta because of overdevelopment but the situation is rather better in Gozo where, thankfully, one still finds large tracts of agricultural land. Therefore, one is not surprised to find that the most laudable agrotouristic initiative is developing in the Island of the Three Hills.
The Ager Foundation, an NGO run by a Gozitan champion of the environment, Victor Galea, has created a very successful model of agrotourism in Gozo. In 2006, the Foundation even managed to be short-listed for the prestigious British "First Choice Responsible Tourism Award." The Ager Foundation’s type of agrotourism is recommendable because it incorporates safeguarding the natural environment within the context of responsible tourism. Above all, it helps to create national wealth through rural development and a rise in the standard of living of rural communities through added income originating from agrotourism.
How does this agrotouristic initiative work in practice? A host family offers hospitality to the visiting tourists. The latter are offered hands-on experience in such agricultural pursuits as milking the sheep and feeding animals, making fresh cheese, participating in the wine-making process, and, of course, enjoying lunch prepared exclusively through the use of natural Gozitan food with a delicious Gozitan wine to wash it down.
The importance of such initiatives for Gozo and, overall, for the economy of the Maltese Islands cannot be overstressed. The Bishop of Gozo, Monsignor Mario Grech, recently said that Gozo’s double insularity presented challenges that could be turned into opportunities. He pointed out that private initiatives in the more traditional sectors such as agriculture were deserving of aid as they preserved the Gozitan identity while creating new opportunities in areas such as agrotourism.
The Gozo Bishop’s advice is indeed wise because since Gozo faces great challenges in the field of creating employment, the development of agrotourism with State aid could be the key towards creating more jobs in this rather neglected sector of the economy.
Local Councils can also play a very important part in the development of agrotourism in Gozo and, of course, Malta itself. For example, the Nadur Local Council purchased 7,000 citrus and olive trees and made them available to farmers at a subsidized price. This increase in the cultivation of the Nadur valleys was followed up by the creation of a cottage industry to process the farmers’ citrus and olive produce. Furthermore, discussions with the local farmers were initiated to allow tourists into their fields to participate in fruit-picking. All this work contributed to Nadur being chosen as one of the winners of the 2007 "Best Emerging European Rural Destinations of Excellence" award.
The ideal scenario is one where both State and private initiatives form part of a national plan for agrotourism which will help to generate new jobs in this sector as well as safeguard and rehabilitate the rural environment to the benefit of our country and its citizens. Gozo is leading the way but what is needed is a greater and sustained involvement of the State in this sector of our economy. The plans are there, it’s time to implement them.