The Times, Friday, 19th March 2010
The Gozo airstrip issue has become a source of political schizophrenia. One major party has encouraging signs: it seems to be retreating from its aggressive stance. The other major party, though, has a worrying position and seems to be saying different things concurrently, probably depending on the audience in front of it.
The Nationalist government used to promote such development but has more recently seemed to retreat, at least in public. According to press reports, Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco has not excluded the project but has expressed doubts on its economic viability. He has also queried whether this development will negatively impact peoples' positive perception of Gozo. Though Dr de Marco's concerns are welcome, the party's stance is neither here nor there and needs to be clarified.
Labour, on the other hand, is acting in synch with its "progressive and moderate" strategy. It is putting forward vague and contradictory statements, in catch-all politics aiming at pleasing everyone at the same time. Indeed, according to spokesman Roderick Galdes, the development of an airstrip is one of the options a Labour government would consider to ensure better connectivity between Malta and Gozo though he adds that Labour would take account of economic, social and environmental considerations and such limitations and variables.
In my view, Labour is not excluding such development for the simple reason that big business interests favour it. Labour's stance on the airstrip is indeed peculiar. In 1987, it proposed it in its electoral manifesto. Then, under Alfred Sant, Labour actively opposed the airstrip proposed by the Nationalist government in the 1990s. But in the last general election, the same Labour Party was both in favour and against the airstrip, depending on which policy document one would be reading. How's that for consistency?
It is clear that Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party is the only political party with a clear position on the airstrip, just as we are the only party with consistent positions against the development of a yacht marina in Ħondoq ir-Rummien and various forms of ruinous development in Ta' Ċenċ. We have also always been consistently opposing development at Ramla l-Ħamra. In short, AD has always put ecological interests and public access before big business interests.
In the 1990s, together with environmental NGOs, AD organised various activities and protests against the proposed development. Up to today, AD and its Gozo regional committee have been opposing such development due to its adverse impacts, which we consider to outweigh positive effects. In this regard, we appeal that studies already carried out on this should be made available to the public and, if need be, updated. We are reliably informed that such studies have always clearly revealed that an aerial operation to Gozo cannot be financially viable unless the number of tourists to Gozo multiplies to a phenomenal figure, which was not seen as possible and which is not desirable too.
An airstrip is ecologically disastrous because, not only will it be developed on agricultural land, but it will have negative impacts in terms of noise, pollution and ancillary development such as parking spaces and roads. Perhaps the airstrip lobby can explain who will foot the bill to fund such a development if not through massive state subsidies. The airstrip lobby can also perhaps explain the cost of tickets to use such transport. I honestly cannot see what the community will gain from such a development.
Further studies carried out should compare the different alternatives that exist to improve accessibility to Gozo. Indeed, an airstrip is not the only option. Other possibilities include having sea-based aeroplanes that can land in different places, the development of a bridge and, last but not least, improved sea transport between Malta and Gozo.
The last option is AD's preferred choice. In addition to the regular ferry crossings, a hydrofoil (catamaran) service can be re-introduced. This can link not only Malta with Gozo but, possibly, also Gozo with neighbouring countries. The catamaran functioned in the past and it was used by different types of passengers including workers, University students, business people and tourists for fast access to Malta and Gozo.
Such transport has many advantages: it is versatile in function, connections, schedules and stop-overs, apart from not taking up any land, already scarce in Gozo. In short, it will improve access to passengers without having the adverse impacts associated with other alternatives mentioned above. Indeed, catamaran services are today's preferred maritime connections between the mainland and islands in the Mediterranean.
Hence, while an airstrip will have adverse ecological impacts and will be very costly, a hydrofoil service will not have such negative impacts and can actually be in-line with the eco-Gozo strategy. To sum it up, proposing an airstrip is another example of cheap politics at a high cost for Gozitans and the Maltese.
The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.