Calypso nymph welcomes the subsea tunnel

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Today, 22 October 2015

bridgeMiracles take time and with a restricted budget, not much can be done by any class of politician whatever his or her good intentions in the holy grail to accelerate limited access by three aging ferry boats. My subject concerns life in Gozo handicapped with its double insularity. A lot has been written on how to ameliorate this handicap and over the rivers of crocodile tears flowed and lamentations uttered by honourable folks elected to parliament from both sides of the political spectrum bestowing their heartfelt wishes to spur the island to a better economic future.

But miracles take time, and with a restricted budget not much can be done by any class of politician whatever his or her good intentions in the holy grail to accelerate limited access by three aging ferry boats. This is made amply evident every time a thunderstorm and gale force winds make crossing by ferry boat dangerous.

This problem is compounded by the fact that currently there is no airfield connection for emergency crossings in case of medical care needed by Gozo patients for urgent attention in Mater Dei hospital. On the commercial perspective, this insularity hampers the flow of tourists who wish to land in Malta and fly direct to Gozo. The majority of hotels are living from hand to mouth and cannot flourish since tourism in Gozo consists merely of day trippers which cannot sustain the critical mass necessary to sustain a thriving hospitality industry.

This means that unless commuting is guaranteed on a 24/7 basis its inhabitants will remain cocooned during storms and inclement weather and as a consequence, the tourism industry will never attain the levels of economic development achieved in Malta. In the past, a lot has been written in the media on the best possible solution to link islands but the closest the government ever came to seriously considering a permanent link was in 1972. Then the government commissioned Japanese engineers to carry out a preliminary survey to build a causeway. Alas, this causeway did not materialise, as technology was not so developed as it is now, with specialized computer driven machinery and 3D seismic surveys used in construction of tunnels. Here I recall taking a taxi drive on the excellent connection from mainland China on a causeway leading to Macao where millions of gamblers flow to the Las Vegas of the Asian world.

Another example is the efficient system of mass transit set up in Singapore with efficient cable car connections to the island of Sentosa. Neither can one forget the superior travel connections to Gibraltar. It may appear invidious if one starts to compare the high standard of living enjoyed by residents of Gibraltar – which is a rock far smaller in size than Gozo –but similar where it concerns the number of residents. Gibraltar, which is just 6.8 square kilometres (2.6 square miles), is home to about 30,000 people, and overlooks the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. In Gibraltar, one finds a fully fledged airport with a runway jutting on reclaimed land out to the sea which serves a tourist industry galloping at full speed – visitors crossing by cruise liners and by air.

Perhaps one may exclaim that comparisons with Gozo are superfluous as the circumstances or locations are not similar but really and truly, the exercise helps in galvanizing an attitude to question the status quo. The Prime Minister last week was quoted at a public meeting to remark that a tunnel is now more feasible than a bridge. A tunnel provides a much-needed permanent link, yet some might argue that spending hundreds of millions (about €300m) to connect the islands is a profligate move which is not affordable, considering €6 billion in accumulated debt.

Others may say that unemployment in Gozo is not high, but one may ask: is the rest of the workforce properly deployed to reach its maximum potential? It is no secret that there is a high proportion working with the public sector. In an island of approximately 30,000, one can hope to reach a higher GDP to match better standards of living achieved in the larger island. It is true that Gozo residents are smart and try to be proactive to make do with limited business opportunities available in such a miniscule market, fully aware that the right infrastructure for mega business does not exist. So is the current hype about building an underground tunnel a ruse or perhaps a pipe-dream by savvy politicians, considering that studies were started five years ago by the PN administration? Some argue that an underground trip misses out on the aesthetics provided by the profile of an island that has charmed local and foreign travellers since time immemorial.

It is good to recall that two years ago, the government had signed a memorandum of understanding with China Communications Construction Company Limited to conduct a detailed feasibility study on the possibility of a bridge connecting the islands. This study seems to indicate that a tunnel is a more feasible option, and much cheaper.

It may come as a surprise to many that a subsea tunnel has to be dug some 14 storeys or more below the seabed. As a rough guess, the excavation costs can reach a princely sum of €250 million (or more if a dual tunnel is built) counting on a 11 km tunnel. Luckily, however, funding can be partly solved by applying under the Ten-T scheme funds by the EU. An underground tunnel located 100 metres below sea level has been proposed in a report on the viability of a Gozo-Malta tunnel link by the Gozo Business Chamber (GBC), together with Transport Malta. The project was described by GBC as enjoying the prime minister’s endorsement. “He is determined to see the project through,” the chairman of GBC claimed of Joseph Muscat in comments to newspaper Illum.

Speculation is also rife there is interest from a Norwegian company that has already built a subsea tunnel connecting the Norwegian mainland to the island of Hitra. The Hitra Tunnel is an undersea tunnel connecting the island municipality of Hitra to the mainland municipality of Snillfjord in Sør-Trøndelag county, Norway. The Hitra tunnel is 6 km long and reaches a depth of 264 meters below sea level, making it the deepest tunnel in the world when it was built in 1994. Just before the 2013 election, the tunnel project was the brainchild of Dr Chris Said – a former minister in the previous administration who was enthusiastic about a tunnel connection and had even commissioned detailed studies but could not progress as his party was not reflected.

At that time, when asked about financing, he said that this would not be a problem as there are various options to obtaining EU funds. So, one may ask – can a future tunnel inculcate a feel good factor in Gozo’s future generation of graduates? Will job opportunities be created in Gozo where graduates can find high-heeled jobs in new sectors? My guess is as good as yours, but with some imagination, sustainable jobs can be created in sectors such as fund management, digital gaming, aviation, pharmaceutical factories among others to match similar opportunities enjoyed by residents in Malta.

But will this happen over the medium term, once a permanent link takes root? The answer depends on a number of factors… surely if Malta Enterprise in liaison with FinanceMalta go trawling for investors (including international banks of repute) by hosting international conferences and doing road shows (such as the Economist Roundtable event) preferably in conjunction with practitioners, then investors will be willing to set up base in picturesque island of Calypso.

Naturally, to attract business in Gozo first there must first be funds to build a proper infrastructure in place with superior internet connections through the tunnel for high speed 4G/5G broadband services.

In conclusion: will the honourable lawmakers enthroned in their seat of power at Renzo Piano’s parliament chamber stand up in unison to proclaim their undivided resolve to unite the islands? Only then will the metaphorical nymph residing in a fabled Calypso cave wake up to charm wealthy investors in droves to visit and join her in a fest of enchanted golden grapes.

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Today, 22 October 2015
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