Europe

Becoming Eco-Gozo

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The Maltese island of Gozo has embarked upon an all-encompassing project to become an eco-island by 2020. For conscious travellers, destinations don’t come much better.

It makes an unlikely habitat for new environmental measures. Casting a look at the azure, crystal-clear water, the rugged coastline, the small, secluded beaches and the rustic, wavy countryside of slow-paced, charming towns, the need of a long-term eco-project seems anything but apparent. However, such a scheme is exactly what Gozo, a sunblessed, 30,000-strong, nine-by-five-mile island of the Maltese archipelago, is applying.

Conceived in 2008, the Ministry of Gozo’s ‘sustainable development’ strategy has completed its first phase, with a series of schemes implemented between 2010 and 2012. Unlike similar projects, it focuses not solely on ecology, but embraces all aspects of the Gozitans’ lives; culture and heritage, economy, education, tourism, agriculture, transport and more. The hope is that, ultimately, these initiatives will contribute to an open and vibrant society, a higher quality of life and an island that people will want to inhabit, visit and invest in.

Not that it isn’t already. Gozo, known locally as ‘Ghawdex’, is among the Mediterranean’s leading diving destinations due to its sharply rising cliffs, warm waters, mystic underground caves and exotic marine life. Its criss-cross of open roads and country trails makes it ideal for leisurely cycle rides and walks. People are famously hospitable and friendly. In the small, crime-free villages they live in, baroque churches, limestone farmhouses and historic landmarks epitomise a rich heritage built during the island’s 7,000 years of inhabitancy. Its strong agricultural sector provides constant fresh food, enabling restaurants to spoil the island’s visitors. As the ministry knows, there is much worth to preserve.

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For such an attractive island, tourism is understandably crucial to its economic lifeblood. The many channels of attraction need attention in equal measure. The surrounding water is one of them, especially on sites such as the Azure Window – an iconic arch of rock created when two limestone caves collapsed thousands of years ago – and the ‘Blue Hole’ – a deep sinkhole considered one of the Mediterranean’s leading diving sites. If the waters weren’t already among Europe’s cleanest, they certainly are now as all the waste water is being treated prior to disposal.

Another crucial attraction is Gozo’s cultural heritage. A €7million restoration project bankrolled by the European Regional Development Fund has been launched for the famous Cittadella, a tentative UNESCO-listed fortification located on a hill above Victoria, the island’s largest town, also known as Rabat. Other chapels and churches have been restored too, along with five kilometres of rubble wall. New ‘heritage trails’ have also been created to shepherd visitors to key sites, such as the Ggantija Temples; giant stone buildings dating back to around 3,500 B.C., thought to be among the oldest pre-historic structures on earth.

With so much to visit, the island has made its well-connected transport system more emission friendly. The use of public transport is encouraged at all times, the alternative being private car hire, taxis, hop-on-hop-off buses and cycling. There are also plans for a number of charging points for electric cars. Other additions to keep the island sustainable have included widespread recycling facilities, energy-saving light bulbs and the planting of more than 27,000 trees and shrubs, as well as 191,000 decorative plants. Gozo, so renowned for its green landscape, is becoming even greener.

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For all these measures however, Gozo knows nothing will materialise without the dedication of its residents. To raise awareness, the ministry is sending trained personnel to each household to educate on water efficiency and waste management. So far, 5,000 families have been visited; the rest is due this year. It also rewards households that use solar panels with higher tariff rates, a move that has prompted more than 700  installations; the equivalent of three per cent of the island’s energy consumption. Presently there are two eco-certified five-star hotels on the island.

There is more. An action plan is underway to increase the number of renewable resources, while a wind-monitoring mast is under consideration. Schools are also involved, and several have installed solar panels. The Eco-Gozo project even has its own mascot, Kikku, whose published diary educates children about sustainable tips and lifestyles in line with Gozitan practices. A music video of children echoing this ethos was released in May. As many as 90 per cent of Gozitan schools participate in the island’s EcoSchools programme. If this generation is dedicated to sustainability, imagine what the next will be.

With so much achieved already, it is remarkable to think the Eco-Gozo project still has eight years to run. Recently, a nearly year-long consultation process for the 2013-2015 action phase finished, having involved all spheres of public life, including economists, politicians, volunteers, social workers and organisations. With such interactivity, Gozo very much is a bottom-to-top strategy where citizens shape their own future; a template of society and government working side-by-side to achieve what every conscious individual surely wants to see; a self-sustainable, vibrant society evolving in tune with its surrounding environment.

Photos: Alan Kraft, CoolR, Elina Manninen [all via Shutterstock.com].

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