Union Is Strength


Sustainable tourism on the island of Gozo

Located in the Maltese archipelago, the island of Gozo has become a laboratory of eco-tourism, which seeks to make the link between the inhabitants, the traditional arts and the travelers passing through.

Hugo Coignard (FR) / Alexandra Edelsbrunner (MT)

Version française

The island of Gozo, in the Maltese archipelago
The island of Gozo, in the Maltese archipelago. | Alexandra Edelsbrunner

Gozo (Malta)

Travelling has become a guilty pleasure. Not because it’s bad to learn about new cultures, natural phenomena, and to meet people. But because of the way we travel, aspiring to fly to the most exotic of locations, staying at luxurious resorts built in the most naturally beautiful places of the world, and exploring the “undiscovered” gems of a country. With all we do, we will leave an impact. Whether that will be a positive or a negative one lies in our responsibility.

Mass tourism has completely transformed places before, the island of Malta being a perfect example. For an island that has just surpassed the half-million mark in number of residents according to the 2021 census, hosting up to 2.8 Million tourists every year before COVID sounds simply crazy. Within a short span of time, infrastructure had to be built to accommodate these numbers of people, and continues to be built today. Every other day new construction site, a new bar, club, cafe, restaurant, service, or attraction emerge. Every year, new hotels and restaurants open their doors. Covid has put a halt to that, however only temporarily.

Reducing the footprint of mass tourism

In order to prevent what has happened to Malta to repeat itself in its smaller “sister island” Gozo, residents are calling for change. Even though Gozo is often referred to as the “smaller sister”, its dynamic resembles that of a mother. The untouched nature, and connectedness to over 7000 years of history and culture is what makes it unique. In order to preserve these characteristics and make them resistant to mass tourism, people are calling for action, with the help of local activism, national politics, and even the EU.

The materials Alda uses for her craft, all locally sourced
The materials Alda uses for her craft, all locally sourced. | Alexandra Edelsbrunner

Initiatives, such as the “Eco-Gozo”-project, aiming to develop the island's infrastructure in a way that is protecting the environment and cultural identity while creating jobs in the tourism sector to ensure impactful economic growth. Or the EU-funded “ConsumeLess”-Label, certifying businesses to operate sustainably, with a focus on the reduction of water and energy usage and waste reduction. A long list of requirements had to be fulfilled to ensure that active change is happening, as opposed to what we know as “greenwashing”. However, awarding a label doesn’t solve all problems, which is why concerned residents and local business owners, such as Alda Bugeja, owner of “Gozo Weaving”, call for activism.

Reconnecting with local knowledge

Stating “I was raised that way”, the craft of weaving is a part of her family’s legacy, with the knowledge and skills being passed on between generations of women. She’s continuing what her mother used to do, keeping a tradition alive, creating art, homeware, clothes and even jewellery from local sheep wool. Her family reflects what makes the island unique, creating a bond between the “new Gozo”, and what it used to be, appreciating new developments and using them to nourish heritage.

Alda showing us how to weave a rug
Alda showing us how to weave a rug. | Alexandra Edelsbrunner

However, developments in tourism have made it increasingly harder to sustain small businesses like hers. The archipelago of Malta is most popular to tourists for its sunny weather almost all year round, making it a hotspot for watersports and partying. For a small country like Malta, its economy being dependent on tourism, these factors do contribute immensely as a source of income, with heritage and culture having had to take a step back. The town square of Victoria, Gozo’s largest city, previously lined with small local businesses, has transformed into a “tourist central”. Now lined with souvenir shops, restaurants and information points, it caters to the needs of visitors.

What Alda would like to see? To have spaces, shopfronts and real estate being subsidised by the government and re-allocated to traditional local businesses, in order for them to be able to reclaim their space. To be able to have her own shop, sell her goods to everyone interested in local handicraft, whether they’re local to Gozo or visiting. To have a space where she can pass on knowledge to Malta’s youth, to make sure that this traditional skill doesn’t get lost. For tourists to feel welcome and informed, and to be able to immerse themselves in the local “way of life”. As she said, “you have to respect where you are, so we can respect you”, acknowledging that a balance requires effort from both sides.

New shops start opening, with new ideas forming. People like Alda and Tonya, who opened a second-hand/vintage clothing store in order to fight consumerism, fast fashion and excessive waste, are at the forefront of a movement towards ensuring for Gozo stay the paradise it deserves to be.

Tonya, owner of VogueX, sitting in her shop
Tonya, owner of VogueX, sitting in her shop. | Alexandra Edelsbrunner

Places like this tiny island, where the impacts of your actions are so visible, thrive on sustainability and connection to the culture, nature and history. We are the ones to blame for destroying what we used to have, so it’s our responsibility to rebuild it better. As ironic as it sounds, taking a step back to our roots can make way for greatest progress, and with mothers usually being right, Mother Gozo proves it.

European unionThis article was produced as part of the Union Is Strength competition, organised by Slate.fr with the financial support of the European Union. The article reflects the views of the author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.