The middle sister of mainland Malta and smallest island Comino, the rural idyll of Gozo is a contrast of Baroque churches and old stone farmhouses dotted across steep hills. This mythical isle in Homer’s Odyssey where sea nymph Calypso held Greek hero Ulysses under her spell for seven years, Gozo’s cruise past has been marked by steadily growing cruise calls from boutique cruise ships such as those from Holland America Line, Seabourn, Windstar Cruises and Conti Group.
Cruise passengers are tendered to the island from smaller vessels that anchor either just outside the main port of Mgarr, or at Xlendi bay berthing buoy on the south-western side of Gozo. This has not only limited ship sizes to smaller vessels, but also the number of calls as seasonal sea and wind conditions restrict the transport of passengers from ship to shore.
However, that is all set to change. With fourteen submissions for siting and constructing the island’s first cruise terminal – and a yacht marina – currently under evaluation by the Maltese Government, there is transformational change ahead for cruise business on the laid-back island. As part of its vision for developing the island in both the short and long term, the Ministry of Gozo plans to upgrade tendering facilities. “In the near future, the development of both a cruise terminal and a yacht marina will give a completely new dimension to the tourism and leisure industry on Gozo,” says Esther Bajada, director of tourism and development at the Ministry for Gozo. “We also intend strengthening the load capacity of the Xlendi buoy in order to improve its performance for larger cruise ships, therefore increasing demand for the Xlendi bay at the same time.”
Although project details remain sketchy there is little doubt among its stakeholders that there will be a profound effect in the number of vessel visits, both from existing cruise lines and from those that will include Gozo in their itinerary planning for the first time.
Ivan Mifsud, director of Mifsud Brothers, port agent and ground operator for Seabourn and Holland America Line, needs little convincing. “What Gozo needs is for lines to include it more in their itineraries,” says the long-time stalwart for the untapped potential of the island. “Typically lines start with one or two test calls before taking the decision to include a new destination, but I feel that Gozo is on the cusp of a surge in calls.
“The added benefit of having multiple cruise facilities around the island is the increased probability that calls won’t be hampered by the weather, as well as the capability of handling multiple calls in one day without hindering guests’ experiences.”
Paul Savona, general manager at SMS Shipping, ground and port operator, agrees: “As the present berthing is on anchor, weather conditions play a big part in determining possible calls to Gozo so having a dedicated cruise terminal would allow for better programming and therefore an increase in the number of cruise calls to the island.”
In addition, cruise lines can take advantage of Gozo’s proximity to Malta and therefore the fuel savings offered by calling at two entirely different types of destination.
“As fuel consumption is an important consideration in the choice of a destination in an itinerary, Gozo makes a perfect complementary stop to Valletta, as although it is part of the Maltese archipelago, it offers guests a totally different experience,” says Mifsud. “The sailing distance between Malta and Gozo is just over an hour which makes it economically viable for cruise lines to make their way to the south of the Med for two days more, no matter the size of vessel.”
Savona agrees: “When a vessel stops in Malta for two days including Gozo, discounts will also be available. Smaller cruise lines will get great fuel savings by having a stop in Malta and one in Gozo – due to the short distance between the two islands – while at the same time providing their cruise guests with a diverse destination experience.”
However, managing the anticipated growth in number of cruise guests to avoid over-congestion at tourist sites, for example, is a consideration not lost on those close to the cruise business.
“It is important that there is good coordination between port agent and ground operator as well as the tourism and transport authorities to ensure a smooth operation and to avoid overcrowding in any one spot,” Mifsud says. “This means we will be designing new tours with a broader portfolio that will enable us to better distribute guests around the island.”
Joe Muscat, CEO, Gozo Tourism Association, adds: “Gozo is a small island and therefore the carrying capacity is always an issue that needs to be looked after, but the cruise industry here is in its fledgling stages and we do not expect heavy demand on the infrastructure.
“Mgarr is quite a busy port and it already handles more than four million commuters between the two islands, so we expect both the port and the transport system to be able to cope with the growth in passenger demand.”
Bajada continues: “New developments are underway in tourist areas such as the megalithic Ġgantija Temples where the recently inaugurated Ġgantija Temples Heritage Park incorporates an interpretation centre. The Ministry is also working to ensure arrivals are managed efficiently by providing the necessary infrastructure.”
How will an influx of cruise guests affect Gozo’s sustainability initiative – the Eco-Gozo regional development plan – which is focused on reducing the island’s carbon footprint, protecting its environment and resources, and safeguarding the Gozitan lifestyle? “The Ministry strives to reach the best balance possible of sustainable development which is key for Gozo,” says Bajada. “Development and sustainability are not mutually exclusive when planning is done sensibly. We believe that increased demand generated by our new cruise facilities will help mitigate the strong seasonality so that a more evenly spread demand will put less pressure on Gozo’s natural environment.”
Alongside that reassurance, the 30,000 Gozitan inhabitants can also look forward to parallel economic gains, says Muscat. “We envisage that the average spend per cruise passenger, which is estimated at around €60 per passenger, can only grow,” he says. “This will benefit Gozitan tourist establishments as well as the Gozitan workers in the transport segment, guiding, retail and tourist attractions.”
Bajada says: “We believe that cruise tourism links very well to an array of services that contributes positively towards the diversification of economic activity on the island. It also promotes the regeneration of indigenous products, namely artisanal ones. Moreover, it creates awareness and appreciation of the unique characteristics and cultural heritage of the destination. This may entice visitors to recommend and revisit the island for a longer stay.”
With the Malta Tourism Authority teaming with local trade in showcasing Gozo’s unique character and its prime location within the archipelago, it seems there is only one direction for the cruising future of this enchanting island.
This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2014 edition of International Cruise & Ferry Review. To read other articles, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.
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