Malta’s rural tourism and the countryside
Tourism Minister Mario de Marco, speaking on Malta’s tourism policy until 2016, basically focusing on a sustainable and responsible industry, announced that plans for the next four years include giving due importance to the countryside, which has never really been considered a tourist attraction. Noting that 13 per cent of Maltese territory was Natura 2000 sites, the minister said that a national policy on rural tourism is being drafted.
Rural tourism may perhaps be defined as a discrete activity with distinct characteristics that may vary in intensity and also by area. Its roots mainly emerge from the fact that many people feel that, in order to truly get to know a country, one has to, at least, visit its communities, learn about their culture and customs, taste some of their daily life and experience their recreational attractions.
As is the case with other economic development strategies, rural tourism requires a number of components. Along with the general services and hospitality factors, these include the identification and proper care of natural and man-made attractions within and adjacent to a community, the promotion of areas or communities and what they have to offer to potential visitors, also in the context of their traditional way of life, skills and culture, and proper infrastructures – from good access facilities to directional signs – preferably not only in the Maltese language – and parking spaces.
Village cores, of course, swiftly come into play when we speak of rural tourism. Indeed, they have to be properly safeguarded and enhanced, from every point of view, because, as Dr de Marco explained, they offer unique and authentic characteristics. Yet, what seems to require perhaps even more urgent attention is the countryside, with its own particular status and dimension from whichever angle one looks at it. It is well known that the Maltese islands, particularly during the colder months, offer a wealth of fascinating countryside attractions: from scenic landscapes to coastal cliffs or secluded beaches, and from coastal towers to wayside chapels in remote areas. Still, not everything is well and good. On the contrary, there is perhaps a long list of headaches that grew longer over years of neglect.
The Ramblers’ Association, for instance, laments that the countryside is rapidly being hijacked by unscrupulous speculators, landowners and squatters.
It also claims that rubble walls, corbelled huts, Punic sites, rock tombs, free-standing aedicules and even time honoured cemeteries as well as whole stretches of garigue are being reduced to heaps of rubble by what it considers as heartless speculators equipped with the latest mechanical shovels and bulldozers.
If we truly would like people – both our own citizens and the tourist – to be able to enjoy all that the countryside has to offer, its protection from all risks, including illegal privatisation of public land, has to be a top priority.
It must also be ensured that popular public places are easily reachable by vehicle or on foot, with due protection against potential hostilities from certain individuals, for instance squatters, hunting-trapping hardliners or farmers-landowners who may sometimes frighten people through their words or deeds, or with menacing dogs kept intentionally in strategic places precisely to scare people away.
A national policy on rural tourism should lead to a special relationship between tourism in the countryside and the concept of sustainable tourism. More specifically, it should be a relationship that will work for a comprehensive and coordinated strategy, also catering for all the required resources to ensure its proper implementation.