Times of Malta, 6th July 2010

On March 11, 1960, The Times of Malta reported that a press conference was held at the Palace in Valletta by Barker-Benfield, then chairman of the Tourist Board, to announce new plans to develop Comino into a tourist resort by the entrepreneur John Gaul. Apart from the hotel and bungalows, which were eventually built, the plans also included the construction of a restaurant on the islet of Cominotto. This restaurant was to be “connected to Comino by means of artistically-designed suspension bridges utilising the rocks which are in the channel”.

Fortunately, this restaurant was never built and we are still able to enjoy the natural beauty of Cominotto. Proposals such as this would be unthinkable today. Since then, the whole of Comino has become a protected site together with the surrounding marine area.

During the building boom of the 1960s, national awareness of heritage and environmental concerns was still embryonic. All kinds of proposals which could not even be contemplated today were put forward and many were implemented. Din l-Art Ħelwa, one of Malta’s first heritage and environmental NGOs, was founded in 1965 as a direct result of this wave of construction mania. One of the first battles Din l-Art Ħelwa fought was against the demolition of a chunk of the old Floriana bastions to build the first Excelsior hotel. A proposal to demolish original and historic bastion walls would probably instigate a riot today!

Ideas in the 1960s were utterly different to the present awareness of environmental and heritage issues. Development proposals and decisions of the past cannot be held up as benchmarks or precedents for decision-making today. Occasionally, there is a renewed attempt to do so, as in the case of the ongoing proposal to build more villas near Mġarr ix-Xini at Ta’ Ċenċ. However, that area of Ta’ Ċenċ now lies firmly outside the development zone and has done so for many years. Building proposals must follow the current policies and not ideas that were in circulation decades ago.

In the case of Comino, we might be grateful that it was not developed even further in the 1960s. The main attractions of the island are the natural beauty and ecology of its landscape and coastline, together with its relative isolation. Comino is now recognised as a Natura 2000 site, that is, it forms part of a network of European nature reserves that merit special protection on a European level due to their ecological importance. Comino is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the Habitats Directive and as a Special Protected Area (SPA) for birds under the Birds Directive. Comino was also designated as a nature reserve in Malta’s Structure Plan in 1991.

However, Comino is not being managed adequately. It is under constant pressure from tourism and is crying out for conservation measures to be established. The saline marsh and rare sand dunes at Santa Marija bay are deteriorating. The camp site in this area must be relocated as it is damaging the sand dunes. The abandoned pig farm is a terrible eyesore which can be removed and the land rehabilitated. Better waste collection facilities are needed, especially around the popular Blue Lagoon.

Din l-Art Ħelwa has restored and looks after the historic Comino tower and battery, yet other important sites on the island are completely neglected. Restoration works are required at the old isolation hospital, the cemetery and the old bakery, which could be turned into a small interpretation centre for visitors to the island.

Tourism is compatible with Natura 2000 sites if it is sensitively carried out with issues of sustainability and ecological concerns in mind. Plans to re-develop the old hotel are afoot; however, Din l-Art Ħelwa insists that any re-development of this site must be restricted to the existing footprint and that the natural coastline must not be touched.

Organised nature trails around the island already take place and are a wonderful way of appreciating the beauty of the island and the diversity of its flora using suitable footpaths. The island is also an important site for seabirds and migrating birds. The islet of Cominotto is specifically scheduled for its ornithological importance as a breeding ground and for its shingle beach.

Comino is one of the few locations in the Maltese islands to have escaped over-development so far. It is still a place where it is possible to experience a sense of isolation and close contact with nature. Comino is also a prime tourist attraction and it must not be allowed to deteriorate or to be developed in an inappropriate way. Eco-Gozo is a great idea but still a very long shot away, however Eco-Comino could be within reach.

Dr Bianchi is executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.