It is barely 9am on a weekday… but still too late to find a place to lay down a towel by the water’s edge at Comino’s Blue Lagoon.
Deckchair operators have got there even before the keenest beachgoers, forcing them onto the fringes while a sea of umbrellas and empty seats hog the scenic spot.
The handful of tourists already there on the first boat, unwilling to hire a deckchair, maintain this is “unfair”.
It is also against regulations. Deckchairs should be placed on request – but they are still occupying public space along the shoreline before anyone arrives.
The tourists told Times of Malta they had arrived early to find a good spot but Blue Lagoon was already ‘overcrowded’ before the masses had even landed.
Armed with their own beach paraphernalia, also due to the cost of hiring, the day-trippers had to settle for an uncomfortable spot on the soil at a distance from the sea, confined to uneven rocks and awkward corners, while the prime area was taken up by the operators.
One visitor said attempts to ask a worker to move an empty deckchair were met with refusal. The worker said he was following his boss’s orders.
Eyewitnesses on other days have also noticed that even the limited free spots are covered in dirty towels to prevent anyone from using the beach without paying.
And the story repeats itself summer after summer.
MTA: 'No permits issued this year'
The tourism watchdog is meant to monitor beaches to prevent this from happening. But no mention was made of enforcement when the Malta Tourism Authority was asked about the recurring problem at Blue Lagoon.
A tourism ministry spokesperson told Times of Malta that “no permits for sunbed operators have been issued this year”. That terse statement was not followed up with the reasons why, what this implied and what was being done about it.
In the case of Blue Lagoon, the Lands Authority had given the concession to the MTA, which would, in turn, issue a tender, sources said.
But the licence fees for Comino – amounting to about €70,000 a summer – had been waived since last year and the operators were allowed to work without a permit.
Asked about this, the tourism authority failed to clarify.
“The Comino issue has been falling on deaf ears year after year, and apart from a few spot checks and fines dished out by the MTA, the political will to solve it once and for all is clearly not there,” said Friends of the Earth about the ecological site.
“This is not the only issue that Comino faces, but it is an obvious abuse of public land and foreshore in one of the most iconic and sensitive parts of the island.
“We live in a reality where no action will be taken unless something impinges on the short-term economic gains of the country,” said FoE director Martin Galea De Giovanni, pointing to connections between operators and big developers.
Over-tourism has been flagged along the years but the authorities did not say how many people are estimated to descend on the island daily this summer, although in previous years, the figure hovered around the 5,000 mark.
Environment activist Steve Zammit Lupi has highlighted the urgent need of increased regulation and enforcement on Comino – a fragile site that could not afford “the massive surge of human activity that caused unchecked disturbance”.
He called for an assessment of the tiny island’s carrying capacity – how many people should be allowed every day during peak periods.
The island faced a “steady and inexorable ecological decline”, he said, calling for a reversal of its “wanton commercialisation” with its negative impact on the environment.
Too close for comfort
The crammed set-up is a familiar sight that has characterised the scene for years, with deckchairs spilling into the shallow water and sprawling onto surrounding high rocks and the protected garigue of the Natura 2000 site.
But the layout also gives rise to health concerns, as one of the tourists pointed out.
The deckchairs are packed tightly, with no means to social distance during COVID-19 as the gap between them is the width of an umbrella base.
Questions on the number of deckchairs allocated this year and what restrictions existed over their placement went unanswered by the MTA.