I caught the Sliema ferry into Valletta the other day. A cheerful woman was busy handing out a questionnaire asking passengers to give the Malta Tourism Authority their candid impressions of Sliema. 

She was about to pass me by, having no doubt worked out that I was local, when I motioned for her to hand me a copy. I assured her that I was indeed Maltese and that having lived in Sliema my entire life I would be in a far better position to provide accurate answers to the many questions therein, which dealt inter alia with the state of the pavements, the upkeep of gardens, the accessibility of public toilets, the matter of noise pollution, and the availability of open spaces. 

She politely handed me the ‘Coastal Locality Survey’ and I got to work.  

I suppose I love Sliema the way one loves a wayward son or daughter who has lost the plot and gone off the rails. I’m almost always disappointed with the place, invariably critical and usually disapproving. And yes, over the years, if I’m brutally honest, I’ve had my heart broken many times. 

But, lost cause or not, I can’t seem to let go. I hover between occasional denial of Sliema’s flaws and huge outrage; between desperately wanting to fix it and an apathetic resentment that makes me want to move away and write it off for good.   

There is so much that is wrong with Sliema that I really don’t know where to begin. Let me therefore start by saying that I really do find it bizarre that the Malta Tourism Authority should dare to even go there. Given the current state of Sliema, it is nothing short of folly to commission a survey of the kind in question. Phrases like ‘self-flagellation’ or ‘delusions of grandeur’ come to mind.

There is simply no nice way of saying it: Sliema has become Malta’s dump site. It’s dirty, run down and ramshackle; and like London Bridge, the good parts just keep falling down.  

If Hebert Ganado witnessed a changing Malta, we are living at a time when Malta is being permanently – that is to say irreversibly – ruined. I would use the F-word were I not writing in this newspaper because the situation certainly calls for it. This is not the time for polite restraint. 

Sliema has changed – or rather has been changed – to the point of being unrecognisable. It’s impossible to go down any street without seeing building development in progress (or, in some cases, redevelopment). 

There are so many building sites and cranes everywhere that the neighbourhood no longer feels like a neighbourhood. It’s hard to keep up with what’s being built where.

Residents are held hostage in their own homes and have no choice but to get used to living with huge slabs of concrete permanently dangling over their heads.  

Perhaps the development would not be so bad if the rest of it was well preserved and taken care of. But abject neglect is everywhere you look. 

Read: Elderly Sliema couple mugged in broad daylight

So instead of shelling out money commissioning pseudo-rhetorical-question researches into the state of Sliema, the tourism authority would do well to take a walk down Sliema’s esplanade. That’s the stretch which begins at the point where St Julian’s ends and Sliema begins, as soon as you descend the ramp (if you can even call it that) across the road from the Carmelite Convent and then follow the main drag that takes you all the way to the Fortizza. 

On what should be one of Malta’s most prestigious and pristine stretches of developed coastline, we are confronted instead by a wasteland of neglect and decay

You can actually walk the whole way pretty close to the water’s edge: a promenade that is – or rather should be – an experience in elegant resort-living.

Only it isn’t. It may be a location blessed with tremendous potential but it’s just not happening at the moment. What was once the ‘Eastbourne of the Mediterranean’ no longer exists. Even the ghosts have fled.   

On what should be one of Malta’s most prestigious and pristine stretches of developed coastline, we are confronted instead by a wasteland of neglect and decay. How can a resort simply allow the storm damage of winter – the damage, it seems, of a great many winters – to fester and languish? 

The paving nowadays is eroded, crumbling and downright dangerous; and where Nature herself might once have been picturesque, quaint and spontaneous, the stones and boulders of the Sliema shoreline seem now to be just so much careless litter and building debris. 

The girder-like wooden railings, more reminiscent now of an industrial landscape, perform no discernible function and were already on their last legs years ago. Today, many of these railings have been washed away by the last storm, leaving yawning gaps where they once stood, and the path they once guarded is a mere track of loose and jagged bricks, or else quite vanished. 

A similar lack of coherence characterises the misshapen pieces of metal that stand alone, ugly and rusted, without point and without beauty. Septic stagnant water, leaking sewage and moss, are part and parcel of the landscape.

It’s a landscape which our visitors are expected not to notice. Does the tourism authority really think that visitors will be dazzled by the hip commercialism of our tourism product? Frankly, I can’t imagine anything shabbier and more complacent. 

And is that questionnaire for real? Do they really believe that visitors will tell us how fantastic we are and what a wonderful time they had? Is it frankness that they really want? Or the relief that they’ve ‘winged it’ for yet another season?

When Malta’s tourism authority can’t even notice things for itself and set about repairing and maintaining a ‘golden mile’ of coast, what hope is there of it heeding unwelcome truths? 

That is of course assuming that tourists will bother to respond. Perhaps they will decline politely, bin the survey (if they are lucky enough to find a bin) and just as politely depart, never to return. 

There doesn’t seem to be any coherence either in the way the tourism authority (and the government by extension) operates. On the one hand they are content to invest hundreds of thousands every year on an experimental short-term sandy beach destined to be swept away within a few months. Their justification – that the project is value for money because people can enjoy a beach during the summer months – would begin to make sense if they demonstrated the same level of commitment to other projects capable of being enjoyed all year round, year on year.

Permanence is one thing, impermanence quite another, just like regular maintenance and total neglect. Throwing away money, skills and precious resources on artificial beaches while paying no attention to our natural beaches, coves and walkways illustrates perfectly our national malaise and what is so drastically wrong with Malta.   

We have recently heard that Sirens is to receive a new swimming pool thanks to a €2.2 million investment, part of a €4m ‘Green Space’ project in 12 localities. We hear too that a public garden has been opened in Birkirkara thanks to a €700,000 investment.

Yet, strangely enough, despite the fact that Sliema is considered important enough for the commissioning of a survey, the only thing being properly maintained in Sliema is the status quo.   

michelaspiteri@gmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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