Can agri-tourism thrive in Malta?

Source: Mr George Mangion¸ PKF Malta

As published on Sunday Independent on 22nd September 2013

Agri-tourism in the Mediterranean area is a much more recent phenomenon than in Northern Europe¸ where it has developed to a sizeable industry in countries such as Britain¸ France¸ Germany¸ Austria¸ Switzerland and the Scandinavian states. So what are its origins? It has a long history dating back to the time of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of urban society that has separated town dwellers from agricultural workers since the early 20th century and created rural tourism as a temporary return to nature for affordable family holidays and recreation.

This particular type of tourism started slowly but has grown exponentially in Italy and other parts of Europe since the 1980s¸ combining a blend of agriculture and tourism that offers farming communities – and visitors – substantial advantages and has proved to be socially¸ environmentally and economically beneficial to both groups. It has helped increase revenues for farmers and directly contributes to the diversification of agriculture regarding both the variety of fresh produce and the provision of rural restaurants where visitors can sample typical farm produce and enjoy the hospitality of farming communities¸ which enhances their appreciation of the cultural¸ educational and sometimes recreational aspects of the rural community.

Taking Italy as an example¸ the agri-tourism sector is closely linked to the agri-food market and is therefore influenced by this trend that is assisted directly by the government through grants to set up such ventures. Countries such as Italy¸ Switzerland and others have discovered the benefits of agri-tourism and enjoyed the arrival of visitors who contribute socially¸ economically and environmentally.

Governments have happily allocated funds to assist farmers in renovating their properties to make them suitable for accommodating tourists. New forces are now emerging in tourism¸ however¸ encouraged by visitors’ interest in the environment and in eating great meals cooked from organic food.

One response to this in Europe has been the Bio-Hotel movement¸ which was founded in 2001 in Austria with members in seven countries. A unique feature of the Bio-Hotel logo guarantees that practically everything the guests receive will be organic¸ while the premises themselves are energy-efficient with modern mechanisms to collect and conserve water resources by the use of reverse osmosis plants.

One may well ask how Malta¸ with its limited countryside and a small farming community¸ ever justify the promotion of agri-tourism? The answer is that¸ just as we developed a successful diving tourism sector¸ so we can – with modest expectations – create new jobs in agri-tourism¸ especially in the winter months when the number of tourist arrivals in hotels is low and with the introduction of this sector¸ the MTA can diversify the market.

It goes without saying that¸ in the same way that in the 1960s the Borg Oliver government began giving grants¸ tax holidays and seafront plots o