Nynke Van Ek | Sunday, 08 March 2009

Agri/o-tourism... bring it on!

A group of farmers from Belgium steps out of the coach: so much for cultural explanations on magnificent Hagar Qim, as the whole group disappears to the opposite side of the road, frantically discussing the crop of wheat that is growing in a nearby field. Passion comes in many forms.
In reference to an article in The Times on February 9: “AD has called on the tourism industry to develop niches through eco and agro-tourism”.
I feel I need to share my experience as a guide for these farmers with you... straight from the horse’s mouth. For the record, I have no vested interest in promoting the localities we visited other than a genuine fascination with professions and traditions that are perhaps in danger of disappearing. I do not wish to go into eco tourism; the proper definition of this sector is still very much a grey area, my outdated 1990 Concise Oxford being no help either and even some internet surfing couldn’t give me a precise explanation. Agri- or agro-tourism (is there a difference, anybody?) is a lot easier to explain; the focus here lies on farming and rural life, including cattle, vegetables and fruit, honey, wine and local products (edible or hand-crafted).
Back to my farmers! The seven days I spent with them were for me, your run-of-the-mill cultural guide, an absolute eye-opener. Malta and Gozo have so much potential and we should seriously start marketing this sector of tourism.
Several visits stood out. The Ager foundation in Gozo offers so much in terms of diversity, from the viewing of orange and lemon trees, the workings of the irrigation system, to the excellent explanations given... all this surrounded by the smell of oranges and the beautiful backdrop of Nadur’s valleys. This foundation also houses a farm in Xemxija where one can experience a day of farming activities, including milking of cows and cleaning out stables. This could be promoted in our schools. The traditional Gozo outing that most schools in Malta organise seems to have gotten stuck on the usual cultural sites which, I am sure, the majority of children has already visited during family outings (it is difficult anyway to motivate 60 or so over-excited 11-year olds to listen to cultural explanations... much more fun to run around in orange fields and animal farms, not to mention scooping up dung).
It’s not a matter of either/or, but of creating a more interesting mix of where we come from and what we are.
A dairy cow farm in Buskett and a sheep and cheeselet farm (the best fresh, pure sheep milk gbejniet so far) nearby were of much interest to my farming guests. Both Joseph and Chris were examples of Maltese hospitality and they handled the barrage of questions with poise and patience. I did feel sorry for the two bulls; with a herd of 120 cows they should be in male bovine heaven but they are not getting any, poor things, thanks to developments in artificial insemination (as I am forcefully suppressing mental images of how the to-be-inseminated fluids would be extracted).
These venues are not only interesting for farmers from abroad. In the course of my days with the average leisure tourist I get a lot of questions on agriculture and I am pleased to have so much more information to give them. Excursions could include some of the mentioned localities in order to better balance agriculture versus other forms of culture.
Sunripe Malta was another highlight of that week; thorough explanations on site on the growing of tomatoes and qarabaghli in greenhouses in winter, explanations on irrigation or the lack of it in the Mgarr region and typical Maltese appetizers before going off for a fenkata.
What about our mushroom farms, apiaries, bakeries (inclusive of a fresh, warm panina)? How about the art of restoring rubble walls, typical Maltese farmhouses and houses of character (guests are forever peering through windows to try and see the inside of an old house.) The possibilities are many.
This is a matter of getting down to sitting around the table, hammering out feasible projects, locating people who are willing, for a few hours a week, to open the doors of their typical properties, and of organising explanations by people who are knowledgeable on these subjects. There seems to be so much unwillingness to try new things, make changes, take a different decision/direction although the potential is there.
Tourists want quaint, typical, indigenous...We have it so lets give it to them!

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