Both Clayton Bartolo and Clint Camilleri denied any conflict of interest in controlling the excessive commercialisation of Comino, despite the fact that the tourism minister's father and uncles run a tourist ferry to the island and one of the Gozo minister's election 'canvassers' is a sunbed and umbrella operator there.

"There was no conflict of interest whatsoever and efforts to improve the conditions on Comino are best judged once the holistic plan being drafted is finished and implemented," Bartolo told Times of Malta on Monday.

Video: Matthew Mirabelli.

On Friday, The Shift News revealed that the father and uncles of Bartolo are the owners of a company that operates daily ferry trips to Comino.

On Monday, it then reported that one of the two licensed deckchair operators at the Blue Lagoon, Mark Cutajar, served as a 'canvasser' for Camilleri during this year's general election.

Policies on Comino fall within the remit of both Bartolo and Camilleri's ministries.

On Monday afternoon, Camilleri also denied any conflict of interest and questioned the actual role of a 'canvasser'.

"It depends what you mean when you say 'canvasser'. Hundreds participated in my campaign and 6,448 gave me their first preference vote," Camilleri told Times of Malta on Monday.

"God forbid that all of these people are discriminated against because they participated in my campaign."

Video: Matthew Mirabelli.

He would not say what Cutajar's specific role in the election campaign was but continued to downplay his role.

"Hundreds helped me and thousands voted for me. You can't go around checking who voted for me. Nobody knows who voted for whom because it was a secret vote. I respect the will of the Gozitan people and the result is what it is," he said. 

Camilleri said that balance on Comino is key and that people should be free to rent umbrellas and deckchairs, but they should also be free not to do so. In this regard, Bartolo and the MTA were right to limit the number of deckchairs and umbrellas, Camilleri said.

The issue of over-commercialisation in Comino has been going on for years, and culminated in a direct action earlier this month, when a group of Moviment Graffitti activists descended on the island and removed the deckchairs and umbrellas in protest.

Following the widely-applauded move by activists, Bartolo announced a ban on sunbeds on the sandy beach in Blue Lagoon and restricted their number on the quay, instructing operators not to lay them out unless the visitors ask to rent them. 

But Graffitti continue demanding further action by the authorities. They say that the many ferries that come and "pour" hundreds of tourists into the Blue Lagoon every day are enabling the rampant business to continue destroying the island, and that the ferry operations should be curbed.

“Big catamarans unload hundreds of tourists at one go and six enormous kiosks sell alcohol in pineapples, which are then discarded for kilometres on end all around the island," Graffitti's Andre Callus told Times of Malta in an interview last week.

“Sending some MTA officials to remove a few deckchairs and umbrellas is not enough," he added, referring to Bartolo's claim that MTA officials were coincidentally meant to descend on Comino to enforce the rules on the same day that Graffitti planned their direct action.

Bartolo's father and uncles are among those catamaran operators.

On Monday, he would not comment on the fact that the holistic plan itself will affect his family's business, insisting a group of stakeholders is still working on it, that he did not choose the people involved and that he is not drafting the plan himself.

"Among them is ERA, the Gozo Ministry and the Transport Ministry, all of which do not fall under my portfolio."

Asked why he has not previously publicly declared a potential conflict of interest because of his family's businesses in Comino, Bartolo said that so far, the discussion only centred "around deckchairs and kiosks".

He said the government will allocate funds for Comino's holistic plan before the plan is finalised, so it can be implemented immediately.

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