LABOUR MP Anton Refalo spoke common sense earlier last week when Parliament was discussing the Gozo vote in the 2006 Budget.

He hit the nail on the head when he pleaded with Government to plan seriously for the substitution of the present helicopter service with a fixed-wing aircraft. He was speaking Gozitan in the sense that he was reflecting the complaints of Gozitans who travel abroad frequently and are now obliged to take the ferry and a taxi to Malta International Airport due to the prohibitive costs of the helicopter service. It is a service that is definitely better and safer than before. But the price has almost doubled.

Experts in the field have assured us that a change to fixed-wing aircraft would result in lower ticket prices. These aircraft are less costly to run than helicopters.

He put the interests of Gozo before everything else. In simple terms, he did not toe his party line in toto, seeing the interests of Gozo at stake. He certainly won the admiration of many Gozitans with his declaration, since the other Gozitan Labour MP Justyne Caruana made it clear that Labour is not officially in favour of a small airport on Gozo.

However, everyone is now in agreement on the necessity of extending the current helicopter pad by some 300 metres to make it possible for fixed-wing aircraft to land in Gozo. This would certainly boost direct tourism on the island. Gozo should not continue to depend on Malta's tourism leftovers, as Dr Refalo emphasised.

Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono did not touch on the subject of the airstrip or airport, although the focus of her Budget speech was also related to tourism in Gozo. Her ministry, she affirmed, was doing its best to upgrade the Gozo tourist product from every aspect: the upgraded ferry and helicopter services, the drive in promoting the island as a diving destination, the installation of a decompression chamber at Gozo Hospital, the training of employees in tourism-related businesses, the establishment of an incubation centre for crafts, and restoration works in Gozo's prime tourist sites, Ggantija Temples and the Citadel, among others.

Mrs Debono reiterated the prime minister's promise that Government will finally launch the road rebuilding programme for Gozo. In this sector, the Gozitans are owed an apology. Government has not spent a single lira from the fifth Italian protocol or from European Union funds for Gozo roads. Driving from Gozo to Malta International Airport along Malta's new thoroughfares, it is impossible not to make comparisons with the appalling conditions of the road network in Gozo.

This year an additional Lm500,000 is being allocated over the sum voted last year for the improvement of roads and related infrastructure. Tenders for the reconstruction of the arterial road from Victoria to San Lawrenz and from Victoria to Xlendi have already been issued. Mgarr Road, which stretches from Mgarr Harbour to Gozo Hospital roundabout in Victoria, will also be rebuilt. Cleverly enough, it was not explained whether all or only a small stretch of this road will be rebuilt. These are being financed through EU funds.

We were, of course, left in the dark on the timeframe involved. This road network will certainly strengthen the value of the Gozitan tourist product, some distant day.

At least words are being translated into action where one project is concerned: the long overdue rebuilding and rehabilitation of the ports of Mgarr and Cirkewwa. First impressions last longest and the ministry should go out of its way to speed up these works, especially in Mgarr, where, at the moment, chaos reigns supreme.

Correction

With reference to last week's Commentary, the government is not paying any salaries at the Arka Centre but is sponsoring six of its permanent clients.

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