Thirty years ago, enterprising businessmen had the vision to buy neglected property for a song and laughed their way into the creation of Gozo’s thriving farmhouse tourism. Fiona Galea Debono trails the evolution of rustic properties into state-of-the-art holiday homes and the problems they face today.
The concept of Eco-Gozo started about 30 years ago, according to one of the pioneers behind the conversion of derelict farmhouses into modern accommodation, who would purchase properties that were about to be demolished to recycle the stone.
“We would take the beams, the features, the sculptures, the stone slabs and flagstones; instead of using a bulldozer, we would dismantle the building stone by stone,” recalls Paul Scicluna, a draftsman by profession, and general manager of Gozo Farmhouses.
That exercise did not cost peanuts either: each stone slab had a price tag of up to Lm1.
To balance the scales, however, in those days, a neglected farmhouse would sell for about €6,000. Today, a similar abandoned property could cost €300,000, and clients want more than the rustic touch, says Mr Scicluna, who has been in the industry from its inception and looks back in nostalgia at the golden days of the farmhouse concept.
“I know where each and every nail is in every property,” says Mr Scicluna, who always had a hands-on involvement in the conversions, which would focus on rendering the properties habitable, while retaining their features.
“If we started the concept of farmhouse conversions today, it would never have happened. Most of our properties are located in outside development zones and we would have been tied down by several restrictions,” Mr Scicluna admits.
His nostalgia also stems from the fact that, back in the day, tour operators were loyal. “We did not need to do any marketing. Today, although this is split with the Malta Tourism Authority, we have to work a lot harder.”
Today’s leading German companies, such as Frosch, started with Gozo Farmhouses, he recalls. Back then, the business was based on tour operators, who were interested in the “new island and went mad over the new market”.
Similar to the trends in tourism on the whole, 95 per cent of the business was originally based on tour operators; today, 80 per cent lives off direct sales. But these are not the only changes the self-catering accommodation niche has experienced over the years.
Originally, the properties did not have pools, but trends have changed, and today, apart from that, each one of the company’s farmhouses has a Jacuzzi bath. Good-quality beds are a must and bedrooms have fireplaces. Amenities, such as bathrooms and kitchens, have had to be upgraded and a 24-hour service is on offer, with handymen on call and in-house chefs – additional services that have generated more employment.
Clients have remained upmarket, with one of the latest VIPs to stay in a Gozo farmhouse being Germany’s former Foreign Minister Frank Steinmeier (today’s opposition leader), whose home had to be surrounded by security.
Back in the day, many were repeat visitors and moved on to buy their own properties in Gozo. The success of the concept led to more investment and competition five to 10 years down the line.
“All Gozo could benefit from the farmhouse business and this niche self-catering market and I am glad about that,” Mr Scicluna adds. “Originally, only Marsalforn and Xlendi were gaining from tourism, but the farmhouse concept took business into villages.”
Today, however, the problem is another: village cores remain empty and that does not make sense, Mr Scicluna insists, suggesting “serious incentives” to renovate the buildings that are so costly to maintain.
As the chairman of the Gozo Tourism Association, he has other bones to pick: “Seventy-two per cent of the beds in self-catering accommodation do not feature in national statistics, but before we get to that stage, we need to revamp the licensing.”
Here lies a frustrating and “unfair” discrepancy – between renting to foreigners and to locals. Domestic licences cost €16, but €500 for foreigners, Mr Scicluna highlights, pointing out that the EU has issued a “yellow card” to change the discriminatory system.
The expensive licences do not make sense to him, plus, added to that are pool fees, commercial rates for water and electricity and insurance.
“Moreover, while we have been paying licences from day one, we are competing with unlicensed properties,” he adds.
Access to the farmhouses is another problem and improving country roads is important, he believes.
“I dream that people can enjoy some stunning panoramic roads on the cliffs along the coast, which are in a disastrous state. Access to some properties can be so dusty. There is trekking and trekking and we have taken it to the limit in some cases.”
Things have changed in Mr Scicluna’s holiday patterns too. In the past, he would move to Sta Marija Estate in Malta for a break. But today, he describes it as “too much concrete and bricks” and he prefers the quiet Wied il-Għasri.
“I want to be away from it all, except for the birds and the odd bark of a dog in Żebbuġ.”
Top three homes:
Best views: Maya in Għar Ilma, Kerċem, enjoys 360-degree views and “you can see Sicily”.
Most off the beaten track: Country roads need to be negotiated to reach the extensive grounds of Orchidea in Għasri Valley, but once you get there, “it is so grand that it takes luxury to another level”.
Most unique architecture: Gamiema in Għasri has unique stone louvers, known as maxrabija. They date back to the 1600s and are now protected.