Gozo – Mind the Gap: by Dr. Franco Mercieca
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The Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR) Islands Commission, in 2009 had issued a working paper on the territories with specific geographical features. In this critical analysis paper the apparent and real distances of various European peripheral islands from the EU centre were compared. While for Malta the apparent distance is equivalent to the travelling distance, this was definitely not the case for Gozo. In fact it is clearly depicted in this document that the real crossing time from Maastricht to Gozo, which would include all waiting time, loading/unloading and navigation, would be equivalent to travelling from Maastricht to the central African state of Chad!
So do we Gozitans have a case for wanting a better link/s with mainland Malta?
The ferry service is at present the only real link we Gozitans have to the rest of the world. We depend on this service for transportation of all our necessities and nowadays even most of our refuse. It is essential for access to tertiary education, health services and above all work. For these reasons, every day, thousands of Gozitans need to travel to and from Malta on a daily basis. The Gozo Channel Company has over the last decades improved tremendously with the addition of sturdier ferries and better Cirkewwa berthing place making the service more reliable and less weather dependent. However it still leaves much to be desired. The absence of an all weather port in Cirkewwa cannot guarantee service in all weather conditions and therefore all year round. Also the infrequency of the crossings especially during late and early hours leads to a lot of time wastage and heartache.
As Gozitans our destiny is written on the wall. Unless we leave the island for good, we have to regularly travel to Malta all our life. We start off in our late teens for tertiary education and some of us even earlier for secondary or even primary education and then enter the work phase of our life. Finding a good job in Gozo is nowadays comparable to treasure hunting. The far majority of us end up starting their work experience in mainland Malta to be later faced with the dilemma of whether to settle in Malta for good or be relegated to daily commuting.
While some Gozitans settle in Malta, a lot of us end up commuting daily. We estimate that we spend a minimum of 3 hours a day in order to travel to and from Malta. This is calculated on the assumption that one is using his own transport, which obviously comes at a price, and that one’s timings are perfect and excluding the situation when either one misses the ferry by a whisker or finds the boat full-up. The latter scenarios would imply an extra 45 minutes wait for the next ferry unless it is in the evening when the time wastage will be much more.
Time is precious and its management is of utmost importance. How often do we miss a boat leading to missing or turning up late for work or an important business meeting or even a social event? Three hours travelling time also mean that any Gozo based businesses are paying their employees for a minimum of 3 extra hours just to get their employees to and from work. Simple mathematics would suggest that if we waste 3 hours a day in travelling, based on a 48 week year and excluding Sundays and public holidays we would be wasting well over a month every year of useful daytime just to travel. This is a depressing figure for all of us daily commuters when we could be spending that valuable time with our families, practicing our hobbies or indulging in a sporting activity. No wonder that most Gozitans are concerned that Gozo is changing rapidly into a geriatric place!
On a yearly basis we hear of the ever increasing number of foot passengers and cars using the Gozo channel ferries. Instinctively we are made to believe that more tourists are coming to Gozo but it is most probably just an indication that more and more Gozitans have to seek better pastures in mainland Malta. These statistics would carry more weight if we knew the exact percentage of passengers travelling on a subsidized fare.
And then once we hang our boots and settle to enjoy retirement on our lovely island, we will still have to travel to mainland Malta for health services. My heart goes out to the cancer patients who have to travel daily to Malta for weeks on end, irrespective of whether it’s rain, wind, shine or calm. That is apart from the innumerable number of individuals who have to travel to a private or public hospital for in or out patients services that for obvious reasons are lacking on Gozo.
All possibilities for a faster and more reliable connection with mainland Malta should be sought. Whether it is an airstrip, helicopter service, seaplane and yes a permanent link, they all should be considered. And the existence of one method of transport to Malta by no means precludes the possibility of the other. It is common knowledge that economic growth of any region is closely linked to its accessibility and it is no surprise that Gozo is struggling to say the least.
However I strongly believe that it is up to us Gozitans who need to push for these possibilities to better our future and that of the coming generations. We have to protect our own little star because nobody else will for us.