Environmental NGOs are "frustrated" and "disheartened" by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority's decision to sanction a visitors' centre and restaurant above the inland sea of Dwejra in Gozo.

The so-called 'interpretation centre' is part of a heritage management plan for the area approved in 2005, but it has been described as a commercially-driven monstrosity that does not respect the surroundings.

Work on the half-built structure was halted almost two years ago after its developers departed from the original plans, but last Thursday it was given the green light under new plans which will see the top floor be replaced with a wooden frame.

The NGOs failed to make an appearance at the Mepa hearing where the decision was taken - even Nature Trust, which was originally involved in the project but lost interest when a restaurant became part of the plans.

However, its president Vince Attard expressed condemnation yesterday: "Three years down the line we are really frustrated about how things have developed. The place still has no site manager and the area is already degrading."

He added that the authorities should not have taken a decision pending the approval of Mepa reform since the site in question was a Natura 2000 area of ecological and historic importance.

"It deserves more respect," he said, adding that Mepa did not even impose a bank guarantee to ensure the project went according to plan.

Meanwhile, Din l-Art Ħelwa executive president Petra Bianchi said the new plans were "imbalanced" because only half of the lower floor was going to be used as an interpretation centre. The rest, including the roof area, would be a restaurant, she said.

"A pattern is emerging of over-sized visitor facilities being allowed in outside development zones, first at Ħaġar Qim and now at Dwejra," she added.

Astrid Vella from Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar said her organisation "didn't even bother to attend" the Mepa hearing since it "knew what the outcome would be".

She said that despite the positive indications of Mepa reform, unacceptable permits kept being issued.

The building did not blend in with the unique landscape of the inland sea, despite the mitigation measures proposed, she said.

"One could have looked into different options. But more importantly, we need to ascertain whether the commercialisation of the area is going to encourage tourism, or in the long run be detrimental to tourism and the area's economy."

Roderick Galdes, the Labour party's representative on the Mepa board, was the only Mepa board member to vote against the application since it was outside the development zone.

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