The Malta Independent on Sunday, 28th September 2008
Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism Dr Mario de Marco recently emphasised that for the tourism industry to be sustainable, we must “maintain, conserve and upgrade our environment”. He warned that tourism development must not take place at the expense of the environment, and all reports drawn up by the Malta Tourism Authority are now to take environmental considerations into account.We can only agree to this – although in truth it is amazing that this wasn’t already happening before Dr de Marco stepped in. The results are all around us for everyone to see.

Tourism development must consider both the natural environment and the built heritage. This logically applies to other kinds of development as well, which also have an impact on tourism and must be sustainable. The same principles must apply to all development.

Old houses and streetscapes are part of our heritage and attractive to tourists, yet demolition continues apace. It is obvious that our urban environment is being damaged by over-development, yet little is being done to put a lid on this damage. We are experiencing a demolition stampede targeting traditional houses and gardens all over the country. How will this affect tourism to Malta in the long term?

Now we also have a sudden surge of tall buildings, blissfully unimpeded by any national strategy on where they should be located in spite of their massive impact on both the urban and natural environment. Din l-Art Helwa has called for a moratorium on new permits for tall buildings until such a strategy has been drawn up, but this has not been addressed.

Vast numbers of old houses have been replaced with three-storey blocks of cramped, characterless flats, many of which appear to have remained unsurprisingly vacant. This architectural clutter is also a pitiful waste of energy and limestone. Limestone is a non-renewable resource and it is estimated that new stone will no longer be available in 30 years’ time at this rate of usage.

Why not just conserve and re-use more of the buildings that we already have? And if we are to demolish, at least let the old stones be re-used elsewhere instead of being crushed and dumped.

Of course the government cannot be expected to do everything. Property owners, architects and developers all need to play a role in respecting and appreciating the value of our heritage.

New ideas for change are being presented all the time, and so they should be – making plans, inventing, imagining, and trying to look ahead into the future, are the essence of human intelligence and creativity. Balancing development and change on the one hand, and the conservation of our historic buildings on the other, is difficult. However, let us be clear that shifting the balance in favour of heritage does not automatically mean harming progress.

Investing in heritage has economic value as it enhances the cultural product. For example, the success of both the Valletta and Vittoriosa waterfront projects depends on their historic ambiences, and the planned Dock No.1 project seems set to turn out the same way.

Many of our main heritage sites have now been taken well in hand – the Roman villa in Rabat and the Hypogeum are well-known examples, but there are many more. NGOs and some local councils also play a valid role, including Din l-Art Helwa which has restored many historic buildings and monuments over the years.

Visitor numbers to the main sites can pose a threat if not managed properly. Malta is promoted as a cultural destination and it is not possible to cope with tens of thousands of visitors each year trampling through the prime sites without the management of visitor flows, adequate displays, interpretation and other facilities.

As we have recently seen in the cases of St John’s Co-cathedral and Hagar Qim, the creation of improved visitor facilities can be controversial. Heritage does not just consist of material objects, but plays a role in our perception of national identity and culture, and everyone understandably feels a sense of ownership.

Major proposals about our shared cultural heritage must be put forward with transparency and public consultation in mind. It should go without saying that adequate information should be readily available to the public from the outset – and not following a public outcry as in the case of the St John’s museum extension. All proposals must be studied carefully to identify the best solutions in the interests of our heritage.

Whichever conclusions are eventually reached regarding all our various sites, good solutions must be found and without delay. Our heritage must be neither neglected and destroyed, nor fossilised – we must adapt to change successfully, with sensitivity and respect towards the intrinsic value of our heritage, and to enhance its lasting value for all to enjoy.

Dr Bianchi is director of Din l-Art Helwa