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Gozo businesses’ perennial grievances

The latest forum discussing the challenges facing Gozo businesses confirmed that the perennial problems associated with the island’s double insularity persist.

In the last pre-Budget meeting, Finance Minister Tonio Fenech provided some interesting statistics that seem to show the economic situation in Gozo is not much different to Malta.

Gozo businesses taking part in the employment aid programme generated 400 jobs. Seven hundred Gozitan women returned to work and benefitted from the scheme that exempted them from paying income tax for a year. Some 150 Gozitan workers were transferred from Malta to Gozo to perform back office jobs.

Unemployment in Gozo has fallen by 13 per cent since 2009.

But according to those attending the meeting, many of their perennial grievances remain unaddressed. While the government is investing €16 million to upgrade Gozo’s industrial estates, industrialists complain that the service charges of Malta Industrial Park are increasing – a claim denied by the minister.

The services of Gozo Channel, as usual, came under the scrutiny of the Gozo Business Chamber. This business forum appealed to the Government to “help Gozo in much the same way it had encouraged low-cost airlines. Low-cost airlines have benefitted the country but they have also eaten away at the number of Maltese holidaying in Gozo”.

Gozo businesses are in favour of the building of a tunnel connecting Malta to Gozo – an emotive topic that crops up from time to time, especially when elections loom. They, however, fret that it may take up to eight years before such a tunnel becomes operational.

In the meantime, they want Gozo to have direct links with neighbouring countries – a proposal that caused some concern to Mr Fenech because of the negative environmental implications.

These grievances, which mainly relate to the economic infrastructure of the Gozo economy, are, of course, all important. But they may betray an inward looking attitude of some operators.

One needs to ask whether it would really make sense to replicate the model of the Maltese economy with its emphasis on new services like electronic gaming and financial services in Gozo. While clearly it would be socially ideal to guarantee employment for Gozo residents in Gozo, the implications of doing this may well be economically unaffordable.

Gozo needs a tailor-made economic development plan that exploits the island’s competitive advantages. But some hard facts must be acknowledged in order not to raise unreasonable expectations that will eventually evolve into frustrations as it becomes evident that such prospects are economically unsustainable.

Such a plan must also move away from often unacknowledged contradictory proposals made by some economic operators in Gozo. For instance, if Gozo wants to promote itself as an ecologically friendly island that appeals to more affluent European tourists, it cannot at the same time promote local mass tourism that causes great strains on the infrastructure of the island, especially at certain times of the year.

Having a longer air strip that would enable wealthy tourists aiming to get away from the stressful big city lifestyles to travel to Gozo with ease could well seem like a good strategy to many. However, if these visitors then find the island congested with heavy traffic and hoards of day trippers milling around Gozo’s towns and villages, they may not be so impressed with what they see.

The Gozo business community would do well to engage in brainstorming sessions that could reveal better ways of optimising their island’s unique economic potential.

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