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Minding our gap

The lifetime of the Gozo Channel ferries is usually around 25 to 30 years. So in 15 years’ time we will be looking for a new capital investment to keep up with the ever increasing demands for transportation between Malta and Gozo.

The lifetime of the Gozo Channel ferries is usually around 25 to 30 years. So in 15 years’ time we will be looking for a new capital investment to keep up with the ever increasing demands for transportation between Malta and Gozo.

The Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions Islands Commission in 2009 had issued a working paper on the apparent and real distances of various European peripheral islands from the EU centre.

While for Malta the apparent distance is equivalent to the travelling distance, this was not the case for Gozo. In fact, it is clearly depicted in this document that the real crossing time from Maastricht to Gozo, which would include all waiting time, loading/unloading and navigation, would be equivalent to travelling from Maastricht to the central African state of Chad.

So is there a case for a better link between Malta and Gozo?

The ferry service is at present the only real link we Gozitans have to the rest of the world. We depend on this service for transportation of all our necessities and nowadays even most of our refuse. It is essential for access to tertiary education, health services, and above all, work.

For these reasons, every day, thousands of Gozitans need to travel to and from Malta on a daily basis.

The Gozo Channel Company has improved over the past decades, with the addition of sturdier ferries and better Ċirkewwa berthing place making the service more reliable and less weather dependent.

However, the absence of an all-weather port in Ċirkewwa cannot guarantee service in all-weather conditions and therefore all-year round. Also, the infrequency of the crossings especially during late and early hours leads to a lot of time wasting and heartache.

As Gozitans our destiny is written on the wall. Unless we leave the island for good, we have to regularly travel to Malta all our life.

We start off in our late teens for tertiary education and some of us even earlier for secondary or even primary education and then enter the work phase of our life.

Finding a good job in Gozo is nowadays comparable to treasure hunting. The large majority of us end up starting their work experience in mainland Malta to be later faced with the dilemma of whether to settle in Malta for good or be relegated to daily commuting.

While some Gozitans settle in Malta, a lot of us end up commuting daily. We estimate that we spend a minimum of three hours a day in order to travel to and from Malta.

This is calculated on the assumption that one is using his own transport, which obviously comes at a price, and that one’s timings are perfect and excluding the situation when one either misses the ferry by a whisker or finds the boat is full. The latter scenarios would imply an extra 45 minutes’ wait for the next ferry, unless it is in the evening when it could be much more.

Time is precious and its management is of utmost importance. How often do we miss a boat, and so miss or turn up late for work or a business meeting or a social event?

Three hours travelling time also mean Gozo-based businesses are paying their employees for a minimum of three extra hours just to get their employees to and from work.

Simple mathematics would suggest that if we waste three hours a day travelling, based on a 48-week year and excluding Sundays and public holidays, we would be wasting well over a month every year of useful daytime just to travel.

This is a depressing figure for all of us daily commuters when we could be spending that valuable time with our families, practising our hobbies or indulging in a sporting activity. No wonder most Gozitans are concerned that Gozo is rapidly becoming a geriatric island.

On a yearly basis we hear of the ever increasing number of foot passengers and cars using the Gozo Channel ferries. Instinctively we are made to believe more tourists are coming to Gozo, but it is most probably just an indication that more and more Gozitans have to seek better pastures in mainland Malta.

The statistics would carry more weight if we knew how many passengers travel on a subsidised fare.

And then once we hang our boots and settle to enjoy retirement on our lovely island, we will still have to travel to mainland Malta for health services. My heart goes out to the cancer patients who travel daily to Malta for weeks, come rain or shine.

That is apart from the countless number of individuals who have to travel to a private or public hospital for in- or out-patients services that are lacking on Gozo.

So what are the options? The possibility of a fixed link between mainland Malta and Gozo has been on the agenda in the past but never got beyond the drawing board.

The double insularity Gozo suffers from has taken its toll on the economy. The insularity and connectedness are two sides of the same coin but forever intertwined.

A permanent link can threaten islandness by removing its physical prerequisite but it can actually save or enhance an island community.

In the early 1970s, the Mintoff administration had commissioned a team of Japanese engineers to carry out a preliminary feasibility study for a permanent link between Malta and Gozo that would not be subject to the vagaries of the weather. Their work is contained in a 20-page report that is gathering dust in the National Library.

The issue of a permanent link for Gozo with mainland Malta was also on the preliminary wishlist of the Labour Party in mid-1980s.

Over the past 23 years the issue has been shelved. In fact, it has been relegated to informal discussions in party clubs, pubs and Facebook.

On the contrary, in the 1990s over €250 million was invested in new ferries for Gozo Channel in addition to building of an excellent terminal in Gozo while we still live in hope for the Ċirkewwa terminal.

I am told the lifetime of these ferries is usually around 25 to 30 years. So in 15 years’ time we will be looking for a new capital investment to keep up with the ever increasing demands for transportation bet­ween Malta and Gozo.

So in the near future the following question will arise: Should we invest in new ferries or another method of transport, such as a permanent link?

On February 23, 2008, the world’s deepest undersea tunnel to date was inaugurated in Norway. The Eiksund tunnel, which connects mainland Norway and Hareidlandet island, is over seven kilometres long and reaches a depth of 287m.

The total cost for this tunnel was equivalent to €65 million, a stark contrast with the quarter of a million spent on the ferries a decade ago.

Could this be a solution for us?

The distance between Malta and Gozo is around five kilometres, and according to the Japanese document, the sea depth in the channel does not exceed 26m.

According to EU regulations, a tunnel gradient should not exceed five per cent which contrasts with the 10 per cent allowed in Norway, which is not a member of the EU.

For any government to embark on such a project would be daunting to say the least. Such a capital project would end up costing at least double the projections by completion date. But I am quite sure a private enterprise, given the right agreement and conditions, would consider embarking on such a project.

Crossing on a fixed link may come at a cost. But who would not pay an extra charge to get to Mater Dei Hospital as soon as possible for emergency treatment, or to get to any appointment on mainland Malta or vice versa without having to waste at least an hour, or to get to a flight on time, or to return home quickly, especially at odd hours?

In the past few decades we have witnessed many large companies merging and joining forces in order to save their businesses.

In the not too distant past such a step would have been considered suicidal, but logic shows that mergers have the big advantage of avoiding double investment.

Linking an island with mainland could mean huge savings for the government.

Those opposing a fixed link would stress that Gozo would lose its identity. But this identity is being gradually eroded by the continual brain drain due to lack of high-end jobs.

While I am sure a fixed link would bring about significant socio-cultural, economical, environmental and political changes I believe the net balance would be positive.

Many villages in Malta have preserved a lot of their character. Why should Gozo lose its character just because it has a fixed link?

Double insularity is the certificate for lack of progress or regress in comparison to other communities.

All possibilities for a faster and more reliable connection with Malta should be considered, whether it is an airstrip, helicopter service, seaplane and, yes, a permanent link.

However, it is up to us Gozitans to push for these possibilities to improve our future prospects and those of the coming generations.

We have to protect our own little star. Nobody else will do it for us.

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