Interview with Hon. Justyne Caruana, Minister of Gozo, Malta

MALTA: Interview with Hon. Justyne Caruana, Minister of Gozo, Malta


WF: Malta has recorded a remarkable economic performance in 2018 with GDP growth exceeding all forecasts. What can we can we expect for Gozo in 2019?

JC: Lots of things. As you were saying, the success of Malta has had ripple effects for Gozo as well. Despite the fact that Gozo was left behind for years, this government has put Gozo in the centre of its endeavours. If you were to look at announcements made in recent weeks or months by the Prime Minister, you could see that a lot of focus is being placed on Gozo. The table has turned so much that in 2018, Gozo was a major contributor to the GDP despite the fact that in previous years we were a recipient; now we are contributors. If you were to compare our growth rate in proportion to the size of our economy, you would see that Gozo’s economy grew more than the Maltese economy. This has not happened by chance; it is thanks to a comprehensive strategy.

We are opening up to businesses, we are diversifying, we are boosting the economy by injecting government funds into various sectors. We are launching new projects which create jobs and opportunities. We are focusing on tourism, which is our biggest strength. Gozo has always been popular for tourism, but we have been striving toward year-round tourism instead of seasonal tourism, which we have managed to achieve. We managed to achieve numbers we had never dreamed of. For example, last year, our ferry company transported six million people to Gozo. That’s a phenomenal number. This year, the numbers are increasing. According to recent statistics, we have had an increase of nearly 8% for cars and 3% for foot passengers.

This year will be more active than last year. Apart from tourism, we are addressing job creation but in a qualitative manner. This entails investment in the appropriate infrastructure and connectivity. When we speak of connectivity and infrastructure, it is not just infrastructure of roads and buildings, it is also iCity connectivity and fibre optic. For the physical connection we are investing in the ferry service and the addition of a new ferry. The fast ferry will be introduced in the coming months.

We are working on various fronts at the same time. To give you an idea, this Ministry has a remit of all portfolios. Imagine that you want to speak with the Minister responsible for financial services, tourism or infrastructure. Here, it is all under the same Ministry. The advantage of this is that you have a one-stop shop. When we have foreign investors come here, the idea of having one ministry for all sectors and having all services under one roof is very enticing. They know that time is money. Once they come here, they know that in one visit, they can go to all the respective departments, get all the necessary information and quickly kickstart the necessary processes. That is something that is working miracles. In a short period of time, we are seeing the results.

WF: You talked about the infrastructure and the connection with Malta. I also read about the construction of a tunnel between Malta and Gozo, could you tell us more about this ambitious plan?

JC: This project has been discussed for many years, even before I was born. Previously, it was a bridge, but the idea has evolved. Now, there is a government commitment that the project will occur as an underground tunnel beneath the sea. This project has been studied and evaluated and is in the process of having a public procurement call issued for the actual implementation of the project. This is the biggest project that Malta has ever seen. There is an incorrect perception that this is a project that will only benefit Gozo; this is not the case. It is a national project for the benefit of the whole country. It is a big project; it will be carried out over a span of years. There is a long-term vision and a long-term plan.

While this project is implemented, we still have to make sure to meet the everyday needs of the people. That is why I mentioned the increase of ferry services. We are having an influx of people and have to improve the efficiency of the service. It doesn’t make sense to promote Gozo, having people like you to help us promote Gozo, and then people having a negative first experience when they come here because they spent two hours waiting for the ferry. It does not make sense and is counterproductive. The introduction of the fourth ferry and the increase in the trips on the schedule means that I can now say there is no waiting time of two hours. You get there, you catch the next ferry, and everything is smooth. We introduced the ferry in June. Before June, it was different.

Gozo was previously a seasonal tourism destination. Now, it is a year-round destination, so it is different. We used to have max influx between May and October; now we have it year-round and on all weekends. The reason for this is because we, as a Ministry, are investing in a year-round programme. Gozo is very rich in culture, history and talent. We have very talented people. If you were an opera lover, for example, you wouldn’t go to Malta; you’d come to Gozo. We have the opera performances here; we have two large, well-equipped theatres. We have a slogan, in fact, ‘Opera is Gozo’. We have this talent, this incredible cultural package, which the Ministry has packaged. We are investing in local talent, we are organising and synergising events, empowering and heavily financing them. We are spreading the events throughout the whole year. We used to have two operas a year; now we have four. We are having them in October and April. We doubled the investment. We also have opera month, a whole month dedicated to opera with events practically every day. If you are an opera lover, you do not have to choose between one or the other. Instead of coming on Friday, attending the opera on Saturday and leaving on Sunday, we spread it out over a whole month. If you are a fan of opera, you can plan your holidays for October and have a whole month you can spend here. Instead of having two or three nights here, you can have more. The same goes for other activities.

Every month, we plan one major thematic event. Every month there is a theme where we decorate the streets and gardens. In May, we have Gozo Alive, which involves all of Gozo. It has an incredible effect, not only on the wellbeing of the locals but also those who come to visit us and the strong economic boost it provides. That is why we are banking so heavily on connectivity and air connectivity. In the past, before EU accession, we had helicopter services. We had a heliport and helicopter service. With EU accession came EU standards and rightly so. The service had to stop because it was not up to the standards. Since then, there has not been a single, long-term operator. We had a Spanish company operate for a period, but then they stopped because it was not sustainable for them. I am not criticising this fact, but we learned from it. Now, together with the Ministry for Tourism – which also monitors aviation – we are discussing a long-term, sustainable helicopter operation. In fact, we have issued an expression of interest for the provision of helicopter service; we have the premises and are in the process of upgrading them so that we have all the facilities according to EU standards. The Ministry of Tourism will be operating the helicopter service. So there will be connectivity by air as well.

Apart from tourism, we are targeting the new value-added sectors. We know we must be abreast of development. With iCity connectivity, we have a fibre optic cable, but we will also have a second one. The work will start on it in the coming weeks, so we will have stronger connectivity. That means that we have already started attracting big names from all over the world because they have the peace of mind that they will have connectivity and the necessary infrastructure.

We are also providing available space. We have an industrial zone that is changing. Apart from the traditional manufacturing side that we have, we have a new facility that is EU funded. We have a very good reputation for absorption of EU funds. We have a good track record and the more funds made available to us, the more we can absorb because we need them. There is a new centre, a research and innovation hub. We have already signed the contract with Google and its premium partner Noovle; others are in the process of signing contracts. I will be able to discuss those at a later stage after everything is signed and sealed. But this is a place where we can attract new technology, including artificial intelligence, augmented reality, blockchain, and related sectors.

We have a lot of Gozitans who are academically qualified and already trained, but they work in Malta. Once we have these opportunities in Gozo, this will address an issue that we have, a challenge that is very close to my heart. We have a lot of brilliant Gozitans who did not find opportunities in Gozo and went elsewhere. Now, with the creation of opportunities here, they will come back. We will get them back here, not only to bring them home but also so they can contribute to the Gozitan economy as well. That’s what they want; that’s what they wish. But so far, they haven’t had the opportunity. If you want to attract businesses, you have to provide connectivity, which we are doing. You have to provide the space, which we are doing, and there are another two projects in the pipeline apart from this hub. You also have to ensure that there the human resources, human capital, is available.

We have introduced a package of incentives for Gozo. It is the Gozitan employment scheme. For every new employment that is created in Gozo for a Gozo resident, we are giving 6,000 euros. They will save 6,000 euros, depending on the salary package. We launched this programme this year. In only one year, we had 32 companies participating, creating 80 new jobs. The majority of them were created by companies based in Malta, opening offices for the first time in Gozo. When they opened offices in Gozo, they are running these offices with the Gozitan employees they have in Malta. They brought them back to Gozo, to work in Gozo. This means that, apart from addressing the brain drain, we are opening new services. If, for example, we bring accounting firms or financial services to Gozo, it means that an investor who would need these services will also be able to find them in Gozo. We are building a structure with a series of services that the investor will need; they will be able to find them here.

Malta Enterprise also has an office in Gozo here at the Ministry. I have a representative of Malta Industrial Parks as well coming to the Ministry. Yesterday, I had a foreign investor come here. I can press a button and get MIP and ME, as well as my economic department, in a matter of seconds. They guided him through the process. Apart from having the facilities within the Ministry, we have also created synergies with other entities. We have them here. You mentioned MFSA; we entered into an agreement with MFSA and already found a property so that we will have an MFSA office here in Gozo. Therefore, if you come here to open a company, you can do it all from here. It is a matter of opening doors and facilitating the process. It’s an actuation of the concept of open government. At the end of the day, this is what an open government should really do.

WF: What is your view for the blue and green economies?

JC: Gozo is an eco-island. I have a directorate here called Eco Gozo to promote Gozo as an ecological island and environmental sustainability. We recently launched a scheme so that the Ministry, within the festive season of Santa Maria, will be refunding the ferry ticket to all those who come to Gozo with an electric vehicle. This is because we want not only environmental sustainability, but we also have a de-carbonisation strategy for air quality. As you can see, this is the busiest part of Gozo, and we have a project going on at the moment. But as you come from the ferry, you can feel that we have a strong natural heritage. This was provided by nature, but we cannot rely on what nature has provided. We have to work with nature, not against it. It is an asset.

We are working on several fronts to ensure this, for both the green and blue economy. For example, we are working to have coastal tourism, the diving sector. We are improving our dive sites. Our dive sites are very popular; they rank second worldwide, which is excellent. We are continuing to invest so that we have protected marine areas and the population of fish and marine flora stays high as we highly value biodiversity. I am not a diver; I’ve never dived. I am relying on the information and what I see. They send me videos, etc., but we also had an international underwater photography competition. They’ve been coming here for two years. What they see here they cannot find elsewhere. That is important.

Apart from further protecting and conserving our dive sites, we are also working to upgrade our beaches. We have a series of blue flag beaches and keep improving every year. We are growing the amount of our blue flag beaches. There was even a survey in a British magazine ranking the Gozitan beaches as some of the top breaches worldwide. That is all in regard to the blue economy.

The green economy is also important as Gozo is rural and traditional. Even the way we cultivate food, rear animals and feed them is still traditional. This is also linked to agritourism and gastronomy, so it is a whole package. We are aware that we must invest more in our rural areas. We are currently carrying out an important project. We received around 10 million euro from the EU so that we could start rehabilitating our valleys. Over the years, storms, debris and people dumping things have had an impact. We are working on the cleaning and rehabilitation of the valleys, a water retention and conservation programme, and reconstruction of rubble walls. These walls are not found in many places in Europe; you can find them in Spain and Sicily. The traditional way of building these walls in the fields has a very particular design. You have to be very skilled to do it. It is not just putting one stone on top of another; you have to combine several elements. It is like having a pattern on a dress. With these funds, we will be working on 10 kilometres of rubble wall reconstruction, which for Gozo is quite a lot. With this, we are sending a strong message that we are preserving our natural heritage and it is an opportunity for a green economy.

While sustaining the rural economy and the people working in it, we are creating more jobs because this kind of rehabilitation and building is also job creation. This is part of the green economy, green jobs. That is one aspect. We obviously need businesspeople to have the mindset that this is the way forward. We are trying to lead by example. We started by changing the fleet to electric vehicles. We have already commissioned six electric busses for the park and ride.

Using EU funds, we also turned the Ministry’s building into a completely green, self-sufficient building. We are also in the process of addressing all other government buildings. Even in the private sector, the commercial community, everyone wants to promote us as a green destination. This year and last year, we won an award at the ITB fair as one of the top 100 sustainable destinations worldwide. This is also a feather in our cap, but we must work hard not only to maintain these standards but to keep upgrading them. Having green buildings over the years, we have had a phenomenon of people continuously building. The challenge here is because we are small. Here, the high-rise building policy does not apply. We cannot build skyscrapers because we would disturb the skyline. We’d no longer be able to see the Citadel or our churches. All of them are museums in themselves because they are so rich. It’s a no go. We cannot allow this, and this Ministry has taken a strong stand. It must be sustainable development all the way. This government is leading by example and this is why we are doing these types of projects. We show people that it can be done. We have the knowledge how to do it; you can come to us and we will show you how. We can even guide people to get funds for it; there are funds available. We know there are costs involved. But if we want to promote ourselves as an example of how things should be, even though we are a tiny island, we have to set the example. We are doing that bit by bit. I am very positive that we will bring changes. I know that every initiative costs money and may be negatively received. We are trying to encourage people to understand that they are investing not only for the moment but for generations to come.

WF: There is another thing that I would like to highlight in the report. Right now, Spanish investors are very interested in Malta because of its renewable energy policies and plans to develop solar farms for instance, as you know Spain is a worldwide leader in this field. Is this something that would be interesting for Gozo?

JC: Yes, this is a very interesting area for Gozo. As I said, we are turning government buildings into self-sufficient buildings and offices. Solar energy is an important component of that. The Ministry also sporadically announces projects to this effect. For example, we have a project in a housing estate where we could install solar panels. Every year, the savings that are created are given back to the people. It is government property, it is social housing, but we are promoting the green agenda. While we promote the green agenda, we are also showing how it pays off in the end. We are giving it back to the people. This is something we are very interested in. I would prefer having a solar farm over a block of apartments. I am all for that.

WF: In Malta, there is currently a Spanish company managing the public bus service. We mentioned at the beginning that we have a Mediterranean way of doing business; we believe there is good synergy and both countries can benefit. What would be your final message to the readers, both as potential business partners, investors and as tourists?

JC: Gozo, as I said, is small, but we have a lot of potential. I always invite people to come here and discover it for themselves. For tourists, being in Gozo is a unique experience. As soon as you land in Gozo, you will feel welcome. It feels different. Even for your well-being, you will experience the feel-good factor. Tourists can see here things they cannot see elsewhere. For example, there is the Ġgantija, it is the oldest prehistoric building in the world. You will not see it elsewhere. Our Citadel is also unique in the world and has won various prestigious awards over the years since its restoration. It is a must-see. We have culture; we compare ourselves to Rome. Rome is the top when it comes to heritage per square metre; we rank second. Obviously, Rome is big, and Gozo is small. There is a proximity issue as well. For investors, time is money. Being in Gozo, you can do a lot of things in a short time. That is very convenient. Apart from that, we are an open government: open for business, open for discussion, and we are always here, ready to meet, discuss and see how to get things done.

I would like to thank you for coming here. You were referred by the Minister of Finance; we work very closely with him and he supports the Gozo agenda very strongly. We also have an EU funded reverse osmosis water project. For now, we rely on water supplied from Malta. There is a cable. Last winter, we had the worst storm we’ve had in 50 years and the cable was damaged. There was a risk that Gozo would be isolated, even for water provision. We are now investing in reverse osmosis so that Gozo will be self-sufficient.