Interview | Sunday, 07 December 2008

Four-square behind Gatt’s road

Unashamedly, Seabank Hotel owner Silvio Debono declares his personal interest in seeing the proposed Ghadira road completed. But, he tells James Debono, his own commercial profit will also be everybody’s gain

Silvio Debono is so convinced that his private interest and the future of what he calls “destination Mellieha” are interlinked, that four years ago he spent a lot of money on a first-of-a-kind “Regional Environment Impact Assessment” for the entire Mellieha bay area.
The study proposed a tunnel beneath the garigue plateau behind the Danish village, and a road passing behind the Ghadira nature reserve.
Minus the tunnel, it is almost exactly what Infrastructure Minister Austin Gatt now intends to do.
Asked if the new road will benefit him personally by increasing the value of his investments in the area, Debono nods.
“By increasing the value of my property, (the road) will also increase the value of the Maltese tourism product. Because my hotel is part of the tourist industry,” he affirms.
Unsurprisingly, he has no qualms in declaring himself “four-square” behind the government’s Ghadira road proposal, which would substitute the existing coast road with one which threads dangerously close to Birdlife’s bird reserve, the garigue area of the Foresta 2000 project and Natura 2000 protected sites.
Debono openly spells out his interest in seeing the road redirected.
“The road project will take place in an area in which I have already invested vast sums of money. I also intend to invest more money in my product. My interest is that the project to upgrade the whole of Ghadira and to have a promenade which meets international standards and which strikes a balance between the environmental aspect and the viability of investments made in the area.”
Still, judging by the reactions of Din l-Art Helwa and Birdlife, the project is unacceptable from an environmental aspect. How can such a project be considered viable from an environmental perspective?
“I admire environmentalists for working for their cause on a non profit basis. What irks me is extremism, irrespective of whether the extremists are developers or environmentalists. What is sure is that this project benefits the environment.”
Debono insists that he considers the environment as an asset, not a liability for his company. He explains that while the hotel benefits from very high rates in summer because of its proximity to the beach, these rates drop drastically in winter.
“Our market is divided into two. During the summer we attract tourist because of the beach. So we market our hotel as fronting the beach and this enables us to negotiate better rates. But in winter we have to market environmentally friendly activities, like walking groups and visits to the bird sanctuary. So it is in my own interest to safeguard the environment and the bird sanctuary as an integral part of Destination Mellieha. ”
But while Debono views the bird sanctuary as an asset for his hotel, Birdlife Malta which runs the sanctuary, argues that a new road will potentially cause unacceptable levels of run-off noise and sound pollution to the Ghadira Nature Reserve.
Debono insists that this is far from his intention, and reveals that back in 2004 he had the audacity to commission a regional environment assessment on a holistic plan for Ghadira which included the re-routing of the existing road, the extension of the beach and even the enlargement of the bird sanctuary.
Conducted by ADI Associate, a company renowned for conducting EIA for government projects like the aborted Xaghra l-Hamra golf course and the forgotten artificial islands, the study was not even connected to a particular development application.
So did Debono precede the government by being the first to suggest the road deviation?
“What’s wrong with me having an interest in a serious holistic project which was meant to enlarge the bird sanctuary and create a decent promenade? Does this mean that the project will be done for my own personal interests? Is this area not visited by thousands of tourists and Maltese people?”
Silvio Debono points out that a number of bodies were consulted during the EIA. These even included the Office of the Prime Minister, four government Ministries, the Transport Authority and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority and even Birdlife and Din l-Art Helwa.
Debono even claims that there was a positive reaction from Birdlife and Din l-Art Helwa on the study he had commissioned in 2004. Does he have anything in writing showing that these two organisations agreed?
“What I have is the report by the company which conducted the EIA which says that they were included in the list of consulted parties and that they agreed in principle with the proposal.”
However, both Birdlife and Din l-Art Helwa flatly deny Debono’s claim that they ever agreed with the road proposed in the study.
The study suggested the relocation of the present road to a route approximately 800 metres inland which included a 500-metre tunnel excavated under the central garigue plateau.
To minimise the impact on the bird sanctuary the study states that it will be necessary to minimise lighting on the road to create a dense green screen on both sides of the exposed road.
The tunnel proposal is one five options being considered by the government even if it seems to be one of the least favoures as it was deemed to cause “irrevocable harm to the water aquifer”, as well as the “loss of a major portion of garigue landscape.” Its construction costs were also deemed to be high.
But the tunnel proposal was not even Silvio Debono’s favoured option at the time.
“My original proposal was identical to that proposed in the Sunday Times,” referring to a suggestion made in Roamer’s column to move the existing road four or five meters inland to create a more spacious beach.
In fact Debono’s original idea was to pass the road from behind the Seabank Hotel thus giving the hotel access to the beach while replacing the existing road with a viaduct bridge.
“My original intention was not to have a road that passes behind the Danish village and the reserve,” says Debono.
The proposal is remarkably similar to the first proposal made by ADT when Jesmond Mugliett was still Transport Minister, which can still be found in the Transport Authority’s web site on the TEN-T network. This option was immediately shot down by BirdLife.
It has also resurfaced as one of the least favoured of the five options presented by the government last week.
The ADT’s presentation states that the height of the viaduct bridge passing in front of the reserve will interfere with the flight path of birds visiting the sanctuary.
According to Debono, the experts who prepared his EIA dropped his original proposal, preferring the tunnel option.
“I had proposed this idea to the company which was conducting the EIA at my own expense. But the company told me that this is not the best alternative and that the road should pass from behind.”
Debono would not reveal how much money he has spent on the EIA.
“I spent lot of money but I do not regret investing this money. Just as I have invested money on the inside of the Seabank, I also invest in the surrounding environment. Don’t we realise that other countries have promenades and beaches which are much better than those in Malta?”
Did he receive any feedback from the government on the EIA?
“At that time I received no feedback… But all of a sudden I heard of the new proposal,” says Debono.
Minister Austin Gatt revealed that the Malta Transport Authority held meetings with Birdlife and the Danish Village about the latest plans. Was he involved in any meetings with ADT or the Ministry?
“Well, the road will not be passing from behind my hotel. So there was no need to hold discussions with me.”
But Debono’s interest in re-routing the existing road even predates the 2004 EIA and goes back to 1998 when he applied to replenish the Ghadira beach by re-routing the part of the road which passes in front of his hotel.
“I always believed that to improve one’s product one has also to improve the environment which surrounds you, as happens in other countries. I always believed in this. But I was always told that the government lacked the money to improve Ghadira. So I proposed to re-route the road, construct the promenade and enlarge the beach at my own expense. In return as a planning gain I expected 33% of the beach as a concession. When I saw that I was not heading anywhere with this proposal I dropped it.”
Now that the government plans to do this work at its own expense, is he still interested in having a beach concession?
“Well I would not be saying the truth if I said that a beach concession is not a plus. But may I remind you that it is the Danish Village and not me which has an application for a beach concession. They were even given a permit to construct a tunnel.”
But does he want a beach concession or not?
“My personal opinion is that the beach should remain free of charge for everyone. But since I will not be investing any money in the project, it is up to the government to decide whether it wants to recover part of the money by granting a beach concession.”
Debono argues that the new development benefits tourism in the area; but the Danish Village which brings to Malta more than 17,000 tourists a year, is considering the new road as a threat to its own existence.
“I can’t understand why they are saying that they will have to close down if the road is constructed. It is possible that the road will affect them. Surely I am not pleased by this. I would like to see further discussions to ensure that they are not negatively affected. After all they have also contributed to Malta’s tourist product.”
But Debono is quick to point out that the new road will not just affect the Danish village, but also his own restaurants.
“I will lose the passing trade for my bars and a pizzeria, which face the present road. But the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. What I lose from the pizzeria and the bar I will gain by having a promenade and beach which are up to international standards.”
According to reports in the Sunday Times a car park is being proposed right next to the Sea Bank hotel.
Debono is quick to remind me that he is not the Minister responsible for roads and that he has no idea where the car park will be constructed.
“Personally I would prefer a garden instead of a car park next to the hotel but the car park has to be constructed somewhere. I already have a car park catering for my own residents. But everyone admits that Ghadira has a parking problem. Since a car park is badly needed, I cannot object to it if the only available place is next to the Seabank.”
But will Debono be interested in running the car park on a commercial basis?
“I have no interest in having a car park or to extend my own car park. I would prefer to have a garden instead of a car park, but it has to be constructed somewhere.”
The Seabank Hotel also wants to add 320 rooms to its existing 251 rooms in a new terraced development set to rise to 10 floors, in an agricultural area known as Ic-Cens right behind the existing hotel.
Debono insists that the whole future of Malta’s tourist industry depends on the ability of entrepreneurs and the government to adjourn themselves to new realities.
“Rather than jumping onto the same bandwagon like everyone else I am investing in creating a new tourist niche.”
Debono’s niche is family oriented tourism. In fact, the new Seabank development is earmarked for families of tourists by catering to the needs of people of all ages.
“I have four children all aged between 10 and 16. When I choose a holiday I try to find a destination which has something for all of them. That is what I have in mind at Seabank.
He also believes that although Malta is a small country, each locality has its own characteristics.
“Every locality is a destination in its own right. Sliema is a destination. Bugibba is a destination and so is Mellieha.”
He compares Mellieha to Magaluf: the flagship resort for promoting Mallorca to the world as a destination for package holidays.
“Mellieha’s product is that of a resort aimed at more classy people who spend a bit more but who are mainly interested in the beach and in nature. On the other hand Bugibba’s product is aimed for people seeking entertainment and night life.”
The Seabank Hotel started out as a nine-room guesthouse facing Ghadira Bay in 1984 and has now grown in to a 251-room hotel. If MEPA approves the hotel extension the hotel will grow in to a 571-room hotel.
“I always had a vision to expand the product. One cannot stop improving. Back in 1984, when we had nine rooms, we employed 10 people. Today our whole group, which also includes other hotels and catering establishments, employs 800 people. Is this not a positive thing?”
What is at stake for Seabank hotel if the Ghadira road is not constructed?
“I would not say that I would close, as the Mellieha Holiday Centre are saying if the road is build. But I would not be able to keep on growing and improving the product as I have been doing for the past years.”
Debono now hopes that all stakeholders will meet around a table to resolve their differences on the project.
“Together we can develop a project which makes all environmentalist and stake holders proud. It should also be a project which benefits the Maltese population at large.”

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