News & Events

Malta News - 26/03/2014

Tunnelling Gozo’s fortunes

Article author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Today, 26 March 2014

gozo bridgeUnless commuting is guaranteed on a 24/7 basis, Gozo’s inhabitants will remain cocooned during storms and inclement weather and as a consequence will never attain the levels of economic development achieved in Malta.

A lot has been written on how to ameliorate Gozo’s double insularity and over the years, rivers of crocodile tears flowed and lamentations were uttered by honourable folks elected to parliament from both sides. But miracles take time and with a restricted budget not much can be done by any class of politician, whatever his or her good intentions in that Holy Grail to accelerate the limited access to Gozo by ferry.

This is made amply evident every time a thunderstorm and gale force winds make crossing by ferry boat dangerous. This problem is compounded by the fact that currently there is no airfield connection for emergency crossing in case of medical care needed by Gozo patients for urgent attention in Mater Dei hospital.

On the commercial perspective, this insularity hampers the flow of tourists who wish to land in Malta and fly direct to Gozo. The majority of hotels are living from hand to mouth and cannot flourish since tourism in Gozo consists merely of day-trippers which cannot sustain the critical mass necessary to sustain a thriving hospitality industry.

This means that unless commuting is guaranteed on a 24/7 basis, its inhabitants will remain cocooned during storms and inclement weather and as a consequence will never attain the levels of economic development achieved in Malta. In the past a lot has been written in the media on the best possible solution to link islands, but the closest the government ever came to seriously considering a permanent link was in 1972. Then the government commissioned Japanese engineers to carry out a preliminary survey to build a causeway. Alas, this causeway did not materialise as technology was not so developed as now.

“Excavation costs can reach a princely sum of €160 million (or more if a dual tunnel is built) counting on a 7km tunnel”Here I recall taking a taxi drive on the excellent connection from mainland China on a causeway leading to Macao where millions of gamblers flow to the Las Vegas of the Asia. A cool system of mass transit was set up in Singapore with efficient cable car connections to the island of Sentosa. Another example in Europe is the superior travel connections to Gibraltar.

It may appear invidious if one starts to compare the high standard of living enjoyed by residents of Gibraltar, which is a rock far smaller in size than Gozo but similar in number of inhabitants at just 6.8 square kilometres (2.6 square miles) and home to about 30,000 people. Due to the acumen and brinkmanship of its political leaders, citizens enjoy a high GDP with an attractive business environment leading to better paid jobs (and almost a full employment rating).

In Gibraltar one finds a fully-fledged airport with a runway jutting on a reclaimed land out to the sea. The tourist industry is galloping at full speed, travellers visiting by cruise liners, and by air from Europe. Perhaps comparisons with Gozo are superfluous as the circumstances and locations are not similar, but really and truly the exercise helps in galvanizing an attitude to question the status quo. The prime minister last week said that either a tunnel or a bridge is a must. Some might argue that spending hundreds of millions to connect the islands is a profligate move which is not affordable (considering the €6 billion in debt). Others may say that unemployment in Gozo is not high (currently around 900), but one may ask: is the rest of workforce properly deployed to reach its maximum potential?

It is a fact there is a high proportion working with the public sector. In an island of approximately 30,000 one can aim to reach a higher GDP to match better standards of living achieved in the larger island. It is true that Gozo residents are smart and that they try to be proactive so as to make do with limited business opportunities available in their miniscule market, while being fully aware that the right infrastructure for mega-business does not exist. So is the current hype about building an underground tunnel or a bridge a ruse, or perhaps a pipe-dream by savvy (yet ambitious) politicians?

The answer can be found in Roamer’s recent piece ‘Linking Gozo – hope not’, where the anonymous Sunday Times columnist said he was against the project because the exclusive charm of Gozo had to do with getting there by boat or sea-plane and that this will be forfeited by tunnelling underground. In Roamer’s words, perhaps only underwater rats are ordained to burrow underground and enjoy the experience but not Gozitans! Such an underground trip misses out on the aesthetic that has charmed travellers, both local and foreign.

Equally vociferous is the opposition for construction of a bridge from those who wish the island to remain quaint and peaceful as a getaway for a restful weekend break. This reminds me of my piece on LNG tankers, which aimed to give a balanced view of the pros and cons of transporting liquefied natural gas in ocean carriers. I concluded that as a general rule LNG carriers have not caused any noteworthy disasters, particularly in Japan where they regularly navigate in busy harbours.

I must admit that the subject of LNG carriers is a controversial one and is currently a hot topic, with a section of the press engaged in a sacrosanct crusade to extol the dangers of berthing LNG carriers inside Marsaxlokk harbour, even though experts have studied the probability of an accident to occur to be one in a hundred thousand years. MEPA has now voted with only two board members against the project, and I am sure the hullabaloo will die away as another topic will emerge to keep the political class busy.

While excusing myself for taking a detour on the subject of Gozo insularity, I cannot help comment on the barrage of articles hitting our media by aspiring MEPs in their quest to win votes for election to Brussels. Indeed they do like to portray themselves as possessors of Solomon’s wisdom to guide the party faithful through the garden path. It makes you wonder if their zest for votes in the May elections will benefit Gozo along the road to attain all weather connections such as a bridge or a tunnel.

So far this subject has not attracted the attention of the MEP wannabes. It is good to recall that last year the government signed a memorandum of understanding with China Communications Construction Company to conduct a detailed feasibility study on the possibility of a bridge connecting Malta and Gozo. It may come as a surprise to many that a subsea tunnel has to be dug some 14 storeys or more below the seabed. As a rough guess, the excavation costs can reach a princely sum of €160 million (or more if a dual tunnel is built) counting on a 7km tunnel; but luckily funding can be partly solved by applying under the Ten-T scheme funds by the EU.

According to former minister Chris Said, who was enthusiastic about a tunnel connection and even commissioned studies for the project, financing would not be a problem as there are various options to obtaining EU funds. Will a future tunnel or bridge revitalise the island’s future generation of young graduates to find jobs in new sectors? My guess is that over 5,000 new jobs can be created in sectors such as fund management, digital gaming, aviation, pharmaceutical factories among others, to enable such affluence currently enjoyed by Gibraltarian (incidentally some are of Maltese dissent).

But this can only happen if Malta Enterprise, in liaison with FinanceMalta, sharpen its pencils and goes trawling for investors and international banks of repute, by attending conferences and doing road shows, such as the Economist Roundtable event held last month, in conjunction with practitioners.

Again business in Gozo needs a proper infrastructure for roads to be in place with superior internet connections through the tunnel or a bridge for high-speed 4G services.  So will the honourable ladies and gentlemen enthroned in their seat of power at the palace stand up in unison to proclaim their undivided resolution to unite the islands? Only then will the metaphorical nymph residing in the fabled Calypso cave wake up to charm wealthy mariners… and investors, in droves to visit and enjoy her enchanted golden grapes.

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Today, 26 March 2014