Whenever I see London being promoted as a tourist destination, it never fails to strike me how this city that prides itself on its modern buildings does not use images of its gleaming skyscrapers to draw visitors. Evidently, London’s marketing gurus have concluded that images of the city’s heritage are more effective in attracting the millions every year than skyscrapers. Thus, airport walls are not filled with images of the Gherkin, the ‘Walkie-Talkie’ or even Renzo Piano’s Shard but of the Tower of London, Big Ben, Beefeaters, etc, the sights that are used to promote London’s ‘brand’.

London feels no compunction to pose as Singapore or New York.

Conversely, Malta, which could boast of more heritage per square mile than the UK, is doing its best to destroy its heritage buildings with the vengeful determination of an Isis militia. 

Politicians of both main parties still labour under a neo-colonial inferiority complex and, instead of raising the profile of Maltese architecture, they have for the last 20 years drummed in the mantra that Malta needs to look like Dubai (God forbid!) Singapore, Hong Kong or New York.

As always, we fail to learn from the experience of others. Singapore bitterly regrets the destruction of its old residential streets, rich in culture and history that were razed in the name of modernisation. 

As for New York, it is amazing that our politicians never mention the fact that, right in Manhattan, there are areas that do not rise above three to four floors and that anything over 50 years old is protected.

Having already lost so much, Malta cannot afford to lose any more of its heritage. 

Not only because our heritage is our national identity but also because our tourism depends on it. Hitching Malta’s economic wagon to transient industries like gaming and bitcoin is shortsighted, just like Malta’s dependence on low-cost textile industries in the 1970s. 

However, hitching Malta’s wagon to deve-lopment is even more dangerous, destroying all that makes Malta attractive and undermining tourism, which was, and possibly still is, our leading economic sector.

There is no time like the present to give heritage back to the people while strengthening our tourism product

Heritage and environment issues hit the news every day. Once-fine Pietà is living up to its name, becoming a vale of sorrows as developers apply to build a nine-storey hotel on the site of the 200-year-old Villa Ciantar/Zamittello. This will destroy much of its large garden, retaining only certain architectural features, while the adjoining government-owned Villa Frère garden, which is being lovingly restored, would be ruined by this towering structure.

Further up in Guardamangia, a proposal to build a massive ‘aircraft carrier development’ would obliterate the iconic view of Fatima church, just as the gem of Marsalforn church has been lost, engulfed by blocks of flats. More tangibly, this project might block the restoration of stately Casa Guardamangia, as the Italian entrepreneur creating a boutique hotel there is about to abandon his plans as it will be ruined by the adjacent massive development. These are the very real impacts of rapacious development.

Meanwhile, the heritage community is buzzing with the news that Villa Guarda-mangia itself, the famous palazzo where Princess Elizabeth lived before becoming queen, is finally up for sale. In spite of being scheduled, this villa is crumbling due to the Planning Authority’s refusal to carry out its legal duty to enforce basic maintenance of scheduled properties, an omission that makes it complicit in Malta’s heritage loss.

But all is not lost. If the Russians could restore the ruins of their burnt-out palaces when they were starving after WWII, surely, we can restore a house in this time of unprecedented economic prosperity? Villa Guardamangia would make a perfect boutique hotel or, better still, museum. 

Before the queen’s last visit to Malta a British newspaper poll showed that an overwhelming majority of British tourists would visit a museum in the queen’s former Malta residence. So such a museum would have a virtually guaranteed clientele.

All politicians talk about saving heritage at risk that has historical or architectural value and are significant to the collective memory. Few buildings fit that description as Villa Guardamangia does, pressing all the buttons. Government spokesmen are constantly reminding us of how the economy is booming. Therefore, there is no time like the present to give heritage back to the people while strengthening our tourism product.

It is only the most backward countries that still destroy their unique heritage to replace it with soulless structures in glass and concrete. It is not too late to reverse this. Let Villa Guardamangia be the torch that lights the way.

Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar is fighting to save these and other heritage properties in Pietà including a scheduled palazzo on the seafront and Casa Vassallo, another heritage gem, but we cannot do this alone. 

Donations can be made via Bank of Valletta Acc. 400-1851-6481, IBAN: MT03VALL22013000000040018516481, by cheque to FAA at 23, St Anne Street, Floriana 9012, or through https://ticketengine.faa.org.mt

Astrid Vella is coordinator, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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