A stretch of land between Ghajn Tuffieha and Mellieha - known as Ix-Xaghra l-Hamra - has been earmarked by the government as "the ideal location" for the development of an 18-hole golf course, the Prime Minister said yesterday.

Covering about 112 hectares, the site includes the former Hal Ferh Holiday Complex behind Golden Bay, which Air Malta recently passed on to the government, as well as the area behind the five-star hotel being built by the Island Hotels Group, past Manikata and extending to the outskirts of Mellieha.

According to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, the area consists of degraded agricultural land and garigue, so utilising it for a golf course would avoid losing fertile agricultural land somewhere else.

Public access to the coastal zone to the west side of the site would not be affected and specific spots that are "ecologically sensitive" would not be included in the development, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said.

The site was not included in the list proposed by Mepa following a request by Dr Gonzi last September. The sites identified by Mepa included an area known as Tal-Gawhar, in the limits of Safi, an extension to the existing Marsa golf course, White Rocks, Ghajn Mellel and Ta' Çenç with Tal-Ìawhar being the most preferred site.

"The government asked Mepa to consider this new area after the Hal Ferh Complex was passed on to the government. In the end, it turned out to be the best location," Dr Gonzi said.

Reiterating the government's belief that Malta needed to have two golf courses, the Prime Minister said the government was seeking to strike a balance between the much-needed economic development and the need to safeguard the environment.

"It is not an easy decision," Dr Gonzi said, adding that the choice of the site had come about after a "lengthy and complicated process".

Dr Gonzi said the government could have concluded the process at this point and issued a call for expressions of interest from developers immediately. The government, however, preferred to have further studies in hand so that all the parameters would be clearly laid out when the tender for the development of a golf course is issued.

Asked how many jobs would be created, Dr Gonzi said one should look at the golf course from a perspective that another golf course would guarantee all the jobs in tourism because all of the tourist services would benefit if the country's tourist product was enhanced.

Dr Gonzi said he hoped the Ta' Cenc golf course, proposed by a private investor, would be developed eventually.

Tourism Minister Francis Zammit Dimech said tourism stakeholders have repeatedly made a case for more golf facilities. "This is a growing niche that our competitors are investing in," he said. The experience of countries that had invested in golf courses showed that Malta could attract about 30,000 golfers a year.

Dr Zammit Dimech said the golf course development had been assigned to the Malta Tourism Authority. This meant that the MTA was the official client of the project, it would be responsible to design the applications and ensure that impact assessments are carried out before coming up with an outline development permit.

Romwald Lungaro Mifsud, the MTA's executive chairman, said golfers travelled twice a year and spent between $2,500 and $3,000 per trip. The amount of money spent by golfers was calculated to be three times the average tourist spends.

He said the country could benefit from its relatively warm winter climate when it would be impossible to play golf in snow-covered Northern Europe.

Subject to the completion of an environment impact assessment, preparatory studies should be ready by next June while the tender would be awarded by December of next year.

The government also announced it had chosen two offshore areas for land reclamation - one off the Maghtab dump in the northeast of the island and the other off Ix-Xaghjra ta' Haz-Zabbar.

Pointing out that more detailed studies on land reclamation should be ready in six months' time, Environment Minister George Pullicino said land reclamation was one way in which construction waste, of which the country produced about 500 truckloads a day, could be used effectively.

Last November, Mepa and WasteServ commissioned the Danish Company CarlBro to identify a number of sites suitable for land reclamation, Mr Pullicino said.

Reclamation could provide a solution to the problem of waste disposal but this was not a stand-alone solution. It has to be accompanied by recycling of the material and sites where material could be deposited.

The reclaimed land could be used for tourism or to develop wind farms, Mr Pullicino said fielding questions. Dr Gonzi added that private entrepreneurs had expressed interest in developing hotels, yacht marinas and real estate on reclaimed land.

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