The Gozo heliport will be extended so that its airstrip can handle small aircraft and make possible the introduction of an air link between Malta and Gozo, Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri said in parliament on Monday.
Speaking during the budget debate, he said the works would be carried out within existing limits and no agricultural land would be taken up.
The facility would be able to handle seven to 11-seater aircraft.
The minister said the operating model used for the fast ferry service would be adopted for the introduction of an airlink service.
Interest had already been expressed by potential operators, and there was also the possibility that such a facility could be used by schools of flying and firms involved in the production and testing of drones, he said.
The last time an air service operated Malta and Gozo was a decade ago, when a seaplane flew between Grand Harbour and Mgarr.
A helicopter link used to be provided by an Air Malta subsidiary, Malta Air Charter, between 1990 and 2004, carrying an average 50,000 passengers a year. Despite Air Malta having forked out about €345,000 in subsidies a year, the service was stopped as it was not making money.
A Spanish company – Helicopteros del Sureste – had started flying between the two islands in the first quarter of 2005 but, again, the operation turned out to be a loss-making venture and was also stopped.
The seaplane service ran between 2007 and 2012.
In 2016 the government had launched a study into laying an airstrip but scant details were given.
Prior to the 2013 general election, Joseph Muscat had said an airstrip would not be a priority for the Labour government. A year later, the Gozo Ministry had said it was considering a number of connectivity options, including the airstrip.
Later that year the government had forwarded plans to the EU for a 900-metre-long grass airfield in Gozo with the aim of tapping into EU funding for the estimated €14 million project.
The airstrip was meant to be completed by 2017 and be capable of handling both internal flights and air traffic from surrounding regions.
The document sent to the EU had stated that a new airstrip could more than double Gozo’s tourist arrivals. The project, however, fell through.
In 2019 then Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi resurrected the possibility of a helicopter service, to be operated by government-owned airline Malta MedAir but that service never took off.
A third of Gozitan workers taking better-paying jobs in Malta
Earlier in the debate, the shadow minister for Gozo, Chris Said, said a third of Gozitan workers are having to work in Malta because working conditions and pay in Gozo are poor.
Said explained that the average wage in Gozo continues to be well below that in Malta. The average family in Gozo earns €4,400 less than in Malta.
While ministers could claim that only just over 100 people in Gozo were registering for work, hundreds were engaged in the community work scheme, with poor conditions, he said. And in a vote-catching exercise, many others had abusively been engaged by the government in short-term contracts as self-employed, given not more than €5,000 so as to circumvent the rules. Whoever signed these contracts would be held to account, Said insisted.
Labour MPs’ silence on hospitals contract
The shadow minister hit out at the three ministers from Gozo for having kept silent about the VGH/Steward Healthcare contract. This, he insisted, was a fraudulent contract which needed to be rescinded because conditions had not been observed, not least the promise to build a new hospital in Gozo. Through their silence, the Gozitan MPs were signalling approval and were thus accomplices in corruption, he said.
The situation had deteriorated so much, he said, that elderly people with no medical issues and normally resident at Dar Sant’Anna had now been moved to ordinary hospital wards alongside sick patients, including Covid patients, with the obvious risks, simply so that some people could make more money.
The shadow minister hit out over a lack of funding for road-building and roads maintenance in Gozo and also listed projects promised by Labour but never delivered, including a cruiseliner terminal, a casino, a new yacht marina, a new courthouse, afforestation, a new Marsalforn breakwater, a buoy in Xlendi for cruise liners, a new hospital, an alternative road from Mgarr, new parking in Xlendi, warehouses for carnival enthusiasts, the reopening of Calypso cave, the SME hub in Xewkija, social housing and a home for the elderly in Nadur.
Other projects had been stopped or were plodding along at a slow pace included the home for the elderly in Għajnsielem which was due to open six years ago and whose rent was now about to expire and the new Victoria primary school.
And it was ridiculous that while the Gozo ministry was building an aquatic centre in Victoria, the Education Minister, also Gozitan, had said she would build a pool costing millions at Sannat school. Surely funds could be better used?
Concluding, the shadow minister observed that now that the EU had realised that electric buses it had funded had not been used for years, some work was being taken in hand in Gozo for a Park and Ride link to the ferry. The facility was meant to be built at Ta’ Xħajma, but now it appeared to be earmarked for the Gozo heliport site reflecting a lack of planning and confusion.
€50m for education in Gozo
Education Minister Justyne Caruana said the government was investing €50m on education in Gozo, which was even more than the Gozo ministry had.
On the pool at Sannat, she said a facility for people with disabilities was even promised under the PN, but never realised.
Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri said an unprecedented €27 million in capital expenditure were being allocated to Gozo. He underscored government action to protect industries impacted by COVID-19, notably tourism. Projects did not mean just the roads, but also rehabilitating cultural heritage.
He said a record 14,313 were working in Gozo, an increase of 530 over 2019, of whom 434 were in the private sector.
The number of Gozitans in the public sector had gone down by 10% from 37%, belying claims that jobs were only being created within the government.
Speaking on connectivity, the minister said the lease of a fourth ferry had been indispensable for an efficient service. The introduction of the fast ferry service had been a great success, saving time to hundreds of people and helping stem the brain drain from Gozo.
In another aspect of connectivity, the inauguration of a second fibre-optic cable to Gozo had given peace of mind to operators on the sister island and would help attract more investment.
On the infrastructure, the minister said works would continue on the roads and the rehabilitation of squares, beaches and promenades.
An application had been made to the Planning Authority for the building of a new breakwater in Marsalforn, where the seafront has been rehabilitated and pedestrianised.
He said 34,000 sq metres of roads were made in the first nine months of this year and even more would be spent on this sector next year with roads being rebuilt rather than patched up. The Nadur-Mgarr road would be reopened by the end of this year, he said. Works on the road to Marsalforn were among project to be taken in hand shortly.
Restoration works on the historic, British-built aqueduct would start next year and would take two years.
The minister said the government would go ahead with its promise to set up a new Gozo courthouse and a property for the purpose was being sought.
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