Tourism and the Environment: The Missing Link
Tourism has over the years developed into a major sector of the Maltese Economy. Most tourism activity has revolved around conventional Sand, Sun and Sea (3S) tourism with sandy beaches being highly sought after. Yet new trends in Europe and across the globe and the desire to travel green and visit remote and pristine environments have led to the development of new niches which are nature based or nature related.
The link between tourism and the environment is not new in the Maltese Islands. One would not be too presumptuous to say that the environment was a major element that kicked off tourism in Malta. The latter started to develop in the 1950s at a time when the island served as a military base. Several from the United Kingdom (UK) used to visit their relatives on duty on the island whereas others who served on the islands used to return with their families. Within villages, local fishermen marketed tours on board their traditional boats among such tourists. The excursion to the ‘Blue Grotto’, nowadays a top listing (number 30 of 356) of things to do in Malta on Trip Advisor, included visiting the caves found in the south-eastern part of the island, an area characterised by several interesting geological formations which are not easily accessible by land. Evidently, in the past, the natural environment of the Maltese Islands, had a lot to offer and was a major attraction. In fact, as early as in 1969, a country code for the Maltese Islands was already prepared by the then Natural History Society of Malta providing tips to visitors on how to respect wildlife when visiting the country side.
Unfortunately over the years coastal development has impacted the environment. This has led to habitat fragmentation and most sites ideal for environmental tourists have become restricted to small areas. Yet according to the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), over 28.5% (89.5 km2) of the Maltese islands is protected due to one designation or another. Included in this number one finds 13.1% of land area forming part of the EU wide Natura 2000 network. Over the years the number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have also increased considerably and nowadays 29.9% of Maltese waters (3,487 km2) have been designated as MPAs. Whereas Ecotourism is not limited to protected areas, such sites are fundamental for those interested in this niche. However most of these sites lack management, enforcement, interpretation and other necessities for tourism to flourish.
Tourism in Malta has reached almost 2 million in 2016. The flow of tourists coupled with the high population density of the Maltese Islands has raised concerns and discussions on carrying capacity, especially in areas that are environmentally sensitive. A case in point are the masses of people visiting Comino and Blue Lagoon during the summer period, which has led to a carrying capacity study by ERA.
Ecotourism in Malta faces a number of challenges including the lack of site management, lack of site accessibility due to squatters and other illegal activities, lack of interpretation services which is currently limited to countryside walks and lack of nature based packages to mention a few. Apart from development, other impacts include illegal hunting and trapping, aquaculture, illegal dumping and pollution of fresh water due to agricultural activity.
On a positive note the tourist industry per se has also become more environmentally conscious over the years. As part of the International Year of Ecotourism initiatives, in 2002, the national Ecolabel, was introduced and is now being administered by the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA). Since then this has been developed further to reflect global sustainable tourism principles. This ensures that environmentally aware tourists can also sleep green in Malta in one of the accredited hotels or in one of the accredited farmhouses in Gozo. In recent years, a Life+ project spearheaded by the Malta Business Bureau (MBB) has incentivised various hotels and accommodation structures to take necessary measures to reduce water consumption.
National Tourism Policies published over the past 15 years have increasingly given due importance to the environment as a key aspect of the tourism product. Gozo has also been earmarked as an eco-destination. If due attention has been given to this element in practice, remains a question to be answered mostly due to lack of political will.
Other several initiatives have been taken over the years to complement tourism and the environment. For instance, through the project PANACEA a MPA information centre was opened in Dwejra, Gozo to serve as an interpretation centre on the marine environment of the area which might be of great interest to divers and those willing to practice snorkelling. The Majjistral Nature and History Park has participated in the Mediterranean Experience of Eco-Tourism (MEET) and received advice and training on how to offer ecotourism packages to tourists interested in nature-based tourism, embracing interpretation and sustainability. An underwater trail has also been developed in the area, though this requires maintenance. The environmental Non-Governmental Organisation Nature Trust opened a hostel at the Xrobb l-Ghagin Park and provides guided excursions within the park. A number of other nature walks have also been developed such as those at Hagar Qim and Imnajdra. The countryside walks developed in 2002, in both Malta and Gozo have been revamped through the ‘Malta goes Rural project’. Such walks have proved to be very popular with tourists especially due to the multilingual guidebooks prepared. There has been an increase in centres including aquaria, zoos and bird parks, which provide new opportunities for tourists interested in the environment. Yet these have also raised ethical concerns among the true nature-based tourists on the bases of captivity.
Malta has a long way yet to go if it truly wants to attract nature-based tourism. Note should be taken of other similar central Mediterranean islands who have promoted this kind of tourism. For instance, the Spiaggia dei Conigli in Lampedusa is under strict management, limiting the number of tourists, umbrellas and activities on the beach in view of the fact that it is a yearly nesting site for the Loggerhead Turtle. Locally, good initiatives have also been taken such as at Golden Bay in Malta and Santa Marija Bay in Comino.
A true culture change is the only way forward and what one hopes for. Should the right incentives be taken the Maltese Archipelago has the potential to use this as an opportunity to attract more sustainable tourism, generate funds to manage environmentally sensitive and protected areas and also offer new opportunities including green jobs to the local community.