Gozo is a lucky island. It has been named by the American Islands Magazine as one of the best overall islands for living in the world. It features in many best-of lists when it comes to island travel. It made it into the best 10 European island destination in Trip Advisor last year and the Rough Guides selected Ramla Bay as one of Europe’s 10 most scenic beaches.
It is indeed an island that bewitches many visitors with its winning qualities: scenic landscapes, alluring sea, sunny climate, laid-back life, clean air, as well as the island’s rural ethos and traditions – a populace that partakes in feasts and festivals, helpful neighbours – and the general sense of safety and security.
Given such allures, Gozo should be ascendant in economic glory. Yet most of the time we only hear laments about Gozo’s economic languidness and scarcity of employment opportunities. Reports and commentators fret about the island’s double insularity, which is taken to be a weakness in the movement of goods and people. And the economic and political planners have been trying to address the perceived weakness through a two-pronged strategy. First is to foster businesses that don’t require transport of people or goods such as back office administrative centres, financial services, or other such virtual services. The second is to simultaneously make plans – which have remained as plans for now – for physical connectivity such as a bridge, tunnel and airstrip.
But this figurative wringing of hands about Gozo’s double insularity is predicated on a fallacious premise. Even the term itself – double insularity – is undefined, an abstraction for what is presumably taken to refer to the separateness of an island that is the smaller sister island of a bigger one.
The fallacy is that Gozo’s economic malaise is solely or largely due to such separateness. This is a faulty prognosis and makes the solutions proffered also misplaced. For let’s be clear-sighted. There might be the odd company that might locate back-office operations to Gozo: one example is a call centre that opened in Gozo some years ago, about which there was much fanfare, despite the fact that call centres provide mundane work opportunities that are mostly relegated to the English-speaking developing countries such as India, the Philippines and Malaysia. However, it will remain the odd company and is never going to become a trend.
This figurative wringing of hands about Gozo’s double insularity is predicated on a fallacious premise
This is because Gozo’s primary weakness isn’t its separateness. Rather, Gozo’s primary weakness is its smallness and conservatism and no bridge, tunnel or airstrip is going to change that. It’s because of the smallness and conservatism that the young and bright are drawn away from Gozo. Even given a bridge and airport, Gozo can never offer the economic and social opportunities that are found in more densely-populated places, in Malta at least, and even larger cities abroad. The same outward migration also afflicts small conservative backwaters everywhere in the world (even in larger countries, intelligent and adventurous young people migrate to the leading cities) and such brain drain exacerbates the economic malaise. Likewise, no bridge or tunnel is going to make Gozitan manufacturing companies able to compete with their counterparts in Malta or in larger countries. The odd company might succeed, but again it’s not going to become a trend.
It is time to recognise these realities and start to focus solely on constructing Gozo’s economy on the foundations of its strengths. That means using Gozo’s qualities to attract a variety of people who would spend their money in Gozo: families on holiday (Gozo is best suited for family holidays), families who have holiday retreat homes in Gozo, and people who work from home such as freelancers and business owners, who could spend extended periods working out of Gozo. There are also retirees and families with young children who would want their children to spend their tender early years in a healthy, outdoorsy environment. In this sense, Gozo will become a lifestyle destination for a range of people. And for these people, the separateness, insularity and smallness are actually part of the allure. The separateness in this economic construct is a source of strength not weakness.
Such people are already being attracted to Gozo, but their numbers can swell if there is a government-driven concerted effort to reach out to greater numbers and to make Gozo better suited to their needs. Primarily, their needs are a better quality of life, more peace of mind, and a fairer and more appreciative society.
Start from improving the infrastructure: this is a greater economic imperative for Gozo than spending the same money to build an airstrip or bridge. And built more responsive government services within Gozo for Gozo. These could include a small claims court in Gozo and a customer authority centre for Gozo in Gozo: thus, people can seek redress against cheaters in Gozo instead of having to travel to Malta. The hospital needs an overhaul and the news that Bart’s will open a medical school in Gozo is welcome in this context: this is partly because the resident students will serve to inject cash into the Gozitan economy, but more importantly because the hospital will become better and more reputed.
Retirees deserve special mention, because this is an economic niche that can be targeted more directly. Gozo is already attractive to certain retirees, but these are also discouraged by relatively low standards and service quality of healthcare. To this end, the plan to build a new hospital and convert the present hospital into a dedicated geriatric hospital will be a boon for retirees.
Another difficulty is that retirees presently have to make an effort to relocate to Gozo and this limits their numbers: a greater range and number of retirees can be enticed by the opening of retirement homes that cater to specific nationalities by having staff that speak the language of the targeted nationalities. An obvious target group are Germans, as well as other countries in northwest Europe where pensions are sufficient to pay for private retirement homes in Gozo (unlike their countries, where retirement homes are beyond the financial means of many), and where people are already covered by health insurance that can be extended to cover healthcare in Gozo (In many countries in mainland Europe, there is no free national health service – the state regulates healthcare financed by privately-managed health insurance system.)
Public order generally is scant in Gozo and parking is haphazard
Gozo’s qualities are a bonus for these retirees – the clean air, the fine weather, the chance of outings in charming villages or by the sea – but a concerted effort also needs to be invested to tackle the nuisances that impinge on the island’s quality of life and serenity. One those things is the noise pollution from hunting and also the hostility of many hunters and trappers. I have taken foreign friends for walks along the flanks of Dwejra, for instance, where we encountered bird trappers who waved us away aggressively despite the fact that we were walking on paths that skirted the coast.
Another source of noise pollution and hazard are the young men driving loud motorbikes with macho recklessness – these are mostly off-road racing motorbikes that shouldn’t be on the roads, as well as quad bikes that are driven at high speed. There are also other sources of annoyance: dust emanating from construction sites and rattling construction trucks loaded with aggregate that’s covered with flimsy covers, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. Some of these things are actually illegal, but enforcement is lax. Public order generally is scant in Gozo and parking is haphazard: Gozitans have either become inured to the disorder and disturbances, and fail to comprehend just how obnoxious these things are for people coming from places where orderliness is the norm. Even though I grew up in Gozo, I have lived abroad for much of my adult life, and these facets of Gozo constantly put me off. And if we have to construct brand Gozo on the island’s quality of life, it would be self-defeating to allow these things to ruin Gozo’s serenity and charm.
Victor Paul Borg is a Gozitan who spends his time between Gozo and Asia.