Union is Strength is a European journalism competition organized by Slate.fr in partnership with the European Commission. Forty journalists, French and European, were selected to work as a team to write articles on EU-funded projects in Europe. A perspective on what the EU can do in its regions.
In Gozo (Malta)
Traveling has become a guilty pleasure. Not because it would be bad to get to know new cultures, natural phenomena or meet people, but because of the way we travel: we fly to exotic places, stay in luxurious resorts built in the most beautiful places in the world and aspire to discover the “unexplored” gems of a country. We leave a mark on everything we do. Whether it’s a positive or negative impact is up to us.
Mass tourism has already completely transformed some places. Malta is a perfect example. For an island that has just passed the half-million mark, welcoming up to 2.8 million tourists a year (before Covid-19) seems crazy. In a short time, it was necessary to build infrastructure to accommodate all these people, and they continue to be so today. Every two days there is a new construction site, new bar, club, cafe, restaurant, service or attraction. Every year, new hotels and restaurants open their doors. Covid-19 has disrupted all of this, but only temporarily.
Reducing the mass tourism footprint
To prevent what happened in Malta from happening again on the island of Gozo, the inhabitants are asking for changes. Although Gozo is often referred to as Malta’s ‘little sister’ located on its archipelago, its dynamic is more mother-like. Its pristine nature and connection with over 7,000 years of history and culture make it unique. To preserve these characteristics and protect them from mass tourism, citizens are calling for action based on local, national and even European initiatives.
The materials that Alda uses for its crafts, all of local origin. | Alexandra Edelsbrunner
Projects such as Eco-Gozo aim to develop the island’s infrastructure in a way that protects the environment and cultural identity, creating jobs in the tourism sector, which ensures efficient economic growth. the label consume less (Consume Less), funded by the EU, certifies that companies operate sustainably, with a focus on reducing water and energy consumption and minimizing waste.
These companies had to meet a very large number of requirements to demonstrate the existence of a real change, and not a simple “green wash”. However, assigning a label does not solve all problems. That’s why concerned residents and local businessmen like Alda Bugeja, owner of Gozo Weaving, are advocating militant action.
Reconnecting with local knowledge
The weaving craft is part of the Alda family heritage, with knowledge and skills passed from generation to generation. She continues her mother’s work and maintains a tradition, creating artwork, household items, clothing and even jewelry with wool from local sheep. Her family reflects what makes the island unique, creating a link between the ‘new Gozo’ and what it once was, taking advantage of the new features to enrich the heritage.
Alda shows us how to weave a rug. | Alexandra Edelsbrunner
However, the evolution of tourism has made it increasingly difficult to sustain small businesses like his. The Maltese archipelago is very popular with tourists for its sunny weather almost all year round, which makes it a hotspot for water sports and parties. For a small country like Malta, whose economy depends on tourism, these attractions are important sources of income, to the detriment of heritage and culture. The main square of Victoria, the largest city in Gozo, once full of small local shops, has become a tourist hub, with souvenir shops, restaurants and information points.
Alda would like to see government-subsidized office space and properties reallocated to traditional local businesses in the future so they can reclaim their space. He would like to have his own shop, to sell his products to everyone interested in local crafts, whether from Gozo or passing through, to have a space where he can pass on his knowledge to young Maltese people, and ensure that this know-how how traditional is not lost.
This would allow tourists to feel welcomed and informed, and immerse themselves in what she calls “lifestyle” local. Aware that efforts must be made on both sides to achieve balance, Alda summarizes the situation as follows: “You have to respect where you are so we can respect you.”
New stores are starting to open, with new ideas. People like Alda and Tonya, who opened a used/vintage clothing store to fight consumerism, fast fashion and excessive waste, are at the forefront of a movement to ensure that Gozo remains the paradise it deserves to be.
Tonya, owner of VogueX, sitting in her store. | Alexandra Edelsbrunner
Places like this tiny island, where the impact of human action is so visible, rely on sustainable development and its connection to culture, nature and history to move forward. It is our duty to better rebuild what we have destroyed. As ironic as it may seem, a return to our roots can pave the way for greater progress, as Gozo demonstrates.
Translation of Voxeurop
This article was produced as part of the Union is Strength competition, which received financial support from the European Union. The article reflects the opinion of its author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.