Jeanette Borg had a thought, then a dream back in 2008 when she was reading for her degree in Agro-Ecosystem management; it centred on one word – ecotourism. Why couldn’t nature and tourism work hand in hand, sensitively and in harmony, celebrating but not exploiting harmfully Maltese archipelago’s rich and diverse natural habitats? Earlier this year, her dream became reality in the shape of a business – Merill Eco Tours. Here, Jeanette argues that ecotourism is a sustainable way to breathe new economic life into Malta’s tourism offer, if handled right.
What is ‘ecotourism’?
Ecotourism is a form of tourism that unites the conservation of the environment, rural communities, and sustainable travel. Tourists who opt for ecotourism expect to engage in experiences that area not only related to nature but also involve meeting local people. Operators implementing ecotourism should follow a number of principles, ideally those The International Ecotourism Society spells out such as minimising impact; providing positive experiences for both visitors and hosts; providing direct financial benefits for conservation; and importantly, providing financial benefits for local people.
Is it possible to have ecotourism in Malta with its highly developed traditional tourism offer?
Ecotourism is relatively a new concept in the Maltese Islands. Nature, culture, tradition and history form an interesting mix to bring about an authentic experience to visitors and locals alike. ‘Sun and sea’ has been a strong selling point to attract tourism to the Maltese Islands throughout the years. The islands can offer a lot more in terms of landscape, ecology, geology, and archaeology.
The local tourism industry is gearing up to provide “green” options in terms of accommodation, transport and leisure activities. Combining these three elements together will ensure an eco-friendly visit and stay on the islands as well as keep the Carbon Footprint as low as possible!
What are its benefits to Malta?
There are various reasons why ecotourism is worth promoting here. The seasonality issue is of concern to the public and private sector. Thousands of tourists visit the islands during a short period of time, mostly during the summer months. This creates an enormous pressure on natural resources, water in particular. Most tourism businesses suffer a loss during the winter shoulder months. Since ecotourists travel for reasons other than sun and sea, a flow of tourists could be spread during winter and spring as well.
Who benefits from ecotourism?
The tourism industry at large would benefit from ecotourism. Also, rural communities can form an active part in the network. Ecotourists tend to seek out traditional and cultural goods and services so economic benefit can be injected directly into the rural areas while respecting and even fostering the way of life of these areas. It can help Malta’s traditional cuisine too: restaurants cooking traditional recipes would be more in demand, and thereby encouraged to keep our culinary history alive, as well as helping promote local food products.
How is ecotourism less damaging than mass tourism?
Ecotourists always demand eco-friendly goods and services. Hotels that embrace eco-friendly practices will be more in demand, while activities that respect the environment will be created in line with this demand.
Excursions, for example, need to involve smaller groups which can be sensitised to our environmental issues and, from a logistics and management point, be guided better when out and about. Some rural sites commonly visited are of scientific and ecological importance. Garigue for instance, is a common habitat present all over the islands. This habitat is home to many tiny creatures, such as aromatic plants and insects that can be easily trampled upon. Tour operators and guides need to become more aware about habitats and species living around us. This issue can be easily tacked if guides politely ask the guests to “stick to the footpath” and avoid wandering away. Prohibiting the picking of plants and rocks also needs to be stated before every excursion as most species are protected by law.
How easy has it been to set up the routes? (issues of access to private land and opening of rights of way?)
It was not easy to set up the routes. The number of attractive sites of interest is infinite, but not all are accessible. We had to team up with various land owners including farmers to obtain access and be able to visit some areas of interest. Avoiding heavy traffic to get to rural areas is also important.
The hunting season has also created some obstacles. Personally, I am against hunting, but I also believe that it has strong cultural roots that cannot be confronted easily. Another thing that is rarely mentioned by environmentalists is that legal hunters (rather than poachers or squatters) are also environmental managers; they take good care of their trees and rubble walls and if wasn’t for them most of the vegetation around the Maltese islands would have been lost a long time ago. To avoid conflicts with hunters, we opted for other locations thus having an alternative for the hunting season. We strongly believe that working together is the way to win-win situations and securing the long-term for the business.
What does someone find out about Malta on your Eco Tours that the regular tours won’t tell them?
There isn’t much variety in conventional tours I must say. The routine Valletta, Mdina and another couple of tours have been marketed now for well over thirty years. It’s a good to promote history and culture but there is much more to discover. Eco tours show the very best of nature, including a variety of endemic species, and social aspects that we cherish. Many of our traditions, except for village festas, and aspects of rural life hardly get mentioned and promoted by conventional tours.
Merill Eco Tours provides authentic experiences for small groups, using eco-friendly transport and bringing economic benefits to the rural communities whenever possible. The licensed guides within the team are passionate about ecotourism and undergo continuous training about the eco aspects of the Maltese Islands.
See Merill Eco Tours website for full details.
I do hope this new tourism venture succeeds and pleased that MIO has given it exposure. Let’s hope the rest of the business community and local authorities get behind it too – the island is far more than just sun and sea. Good luck to Merill Eco Tours, I shall certainly mention the website to friends and acquaintances planning to visit.