The few kilometres of sea between Malta and Gozo have a very deep impact on how Gozitans view life. It might sound an exaggeration, but it is not. From a Gozitan perspective, travelling to and from Malta has always been viewed as a burden. A burden that must be consciously accepted rather than a choice. Be it as a student studying in Malta or a worker earning a living on the main island, the hours of travelling was a substitute only to find temporary residenceon the main island and live there from Monday to Friday. For a young person, it meant being ‘forced’ to live away from home during the week. For a parent, it meant not seeing your young adults for almost a week while they study or work in Malta.
Middle aged people still remember what it meant for a Gozitan to travel on an almost daily basis to Malta. The long hours travelling on old buses and the limited ferry trips, with a two hours interval between one trip and the next. The joke at the time was that it took less time to travel from Malta to London, then from Valletta to Gozo. And sadly, this joke was a fair description of the situation.
No wonder the daily flow of people commuting between the islands amounted to a couple of hundreds. Not difficult then to understand why, queues of cars boarding the ferry was unheard of.
The joke at the time was that it took less time to travel from Malta to London, then from Valletta to Gozo.
However, the result of all this was no joke. Economic activity in Gozo was stagnant. Opportunities were few. Tourism was seasonal, highly seasonal, with the three summer months responsible for circa 70% of tourist arrivals in Gozo.
The connectivity between the islands improved significantly with the introduction of the new ferries during the first years of 2000. They were much more suitable to the needs of Gozo. For a good number of years, the service offered by the Gozo Channel through its three ferries proved adequate. Flows between the islands were still mundane, consisting mainly of Gozitans that had to travel to Malta for study or work, and Maltese crossing to Gozo for the weekend.
The landscape changed in 2013. Immediately after taking Office, the new administration had to face many long-standing problems, among which a Gozo Channel on the brink of bankruptcy. However, there was a determination to change things for the better. One of the first measures undertaken was the initiative in November 2013, of a free travel weekend to Gozo. This was welcomed by the Gozo Tourism Association which stated at the time that it “hopes that this initiative will open up opportunities to extend the touristic season with the domestic market all through the winter months”. Its wish became reality. From there on, Gozo started to experience a boom in visitors, both from the foreign and the domestic market.
With success came new challenges. The service offered by the then Gozo Channel fleet started to struggle in catering for the higher demand. Queues at Cirkewwa and Mgarr became increasingly common on Fridays and weekends. A fourth ferry was added to the fleet. This increased the frequency of the service and drastically cut down on waiting boarding time.
Still the big issue of having to travel to Cirkewwa to board the ferry to Gozo remained. For a number of years, the aim was to have a fast ferry service operating directly from Valletta to Gozo. The initial attempt was to have this service granted by means of a concession by public procurement, but the process ran into legal issues. In February this year, it was announced that the service will be liberalised with the government committing to invest €5 million in infrastructure for ferries to be able to disembark passengers.
And the day has finally arrived. For some it might not be such a big deal but especially for Gozitans it is a game changer. The fast ferry will simply provide a new dimension in terms of commuting between the islands. For students and workers, it means less hours consumed in waiting and travelling. The fast ferry service will easily free 10 hours of commuting on a weekly basis.
The fast ferry service will easily free 10 hours of commuting on a weekly basis.
It will also mean tourists no longer need to travel to Cirkewwa to be able to cross over to Gozo. Now, they can board ferry in Valletta and arrive in Gozo in less than 45 minutes. Tourists can now increasingly select Gozo as their main destination.
The social and economic benefits are clear. It will improve connectivity, increase the productive capacity of the economy and alleviate the double insularity issue. This connection will also have a positive impact on the environment. A recent Transport Malta survey found that the most common means of transport travel between the two islands is through the use of one’s personal car. The introduction of an efficient and reliable fast ferry service will lead to a shift from vehicle transport to foot passengers. This will reduce congestion and pollution especially during the weekends.
The introduction of this service is marking a new chapter for Gozo. It is a step in the right direction, and one that has the potential to change the way we view commuting between the islands.
Who knows? One might start talking in terms of boarding the fast ferry at nine in the morning from Gozo and arrive in Valletta before ten, finish one’s errands and be back in Gozo before noon! A game changer indeed.