Maritime Malta is one of the country’s prime assets. What we lack by way of natural resources is amply compensated for by our surrounding seas.
The sea is our source of living, our ‘hinterland’, our means of communication with the outside world. The sea does not isolate us – rather it is our bridge to the rest of the world.
Quoting from a recent feature penned by Professor Oliver Friggieri in The Sunday Times of Malta, ‘Towards a definition of an ultra-minor nation’: “A diminutive island which is equally a city and a nation, a geographical dot and a formidable fortress of history, standing midway between two continents, belonging to the south of Europe and so close to North Africa, looking very far ahead from herself”.
This, in my opinion, is the definition of maritime Malta because it was from the sea that our forefathers arrived on this land and back to the sea our capabilities reach out to earn a living, create livelihoods, devise entrepreneurship and create wealth.
Our maritime industry is made up of a composite of a multitude – in Maltese terms – of small and medium-sized commercial entities each one competing for its share of the maritime resources to deliver a service, create wealth and by doing so generate an economic activity. There is no doubt that maritime Malta is a main contributor to our GDP, notwithstanding its low profile and at times, prejudiced negative PR.
Malta has to be proud of its maritime achievements because considering the limited geographical size and population, it has made incredible successes which much bigger nations try to emulate. The capability to turn an arid island into a major international maritime hub is a feather in our cap – thanks to the foresight of our predecessors. The hubbing concept is manifest in today’s trans-shipment industry (containers, conventional cargo, petroleum products, cruise passengers, offshore oil industry – some of the leading examples). Hubbing attracts vessels to call at Malta but hubbing on itself would not survive without infrastructure and support services.
Our infrastructure – harbours, quays, terminals, berths, water depth – plays an essential role to attract shipping lines to call at Malta because this infrastructure impinges directly on the smooth operation for a vessel to enter port, berth and turnaround. Considering the capital intensiveness of this industry, a vessel’s time in port is literally measured by the minute and the success of a hub relies heavily, if not exclusively, on the efficient turnaround of ships.
Shipping is dynamic – the only constant is change – and all the time experimenting with new systems and strategies. Unless maritime Malta is an intrinsic part of this movement it becomes anachronistic and stuck in its past.
This is where we feel that a holistic approach to planning is required. Given the dynamics of this industry, where ships are becoming bigger, we have to keep developing our maritime infrastructure, in an environmental-friendly manner, to remain relevant to the international maritime industry. If we look at the investment made by Malta Freeport Terminals over the years (over €250 million since October 2004) we have a template that can be emulated.
Without such investment Malta Freeport would not be able to handle the largest container vessels (20,000TEU capacity) that are plying the seas today.
Grand Harbour is a different story. It cries out for a vision and action. The investment made in Grand Harbour over the years has been pitiful and it is with grave concern to note that up to the last budget presented by government in October, there were no funds voted for infrastructural development in Grand Harbour. If I have missed the point, I stand to be corrected.
The holistic approach that is required entails an in-depth consultative process with all the stakeholders. This should lead to the identification of the strategic direction to be taken followed by an action plan that is monitored and kept on track. If we were able to do it on the development of the road infrastructure, there is no reason why we cannot do it on the ports infrastructure.
The reality, however, and unfortunately, is different. Take Deep Water Quay (DWQ) as an example – we, the stakeholders have lost track when the works started and when they are supposed to be completed. What we do know is that in the meantime the opportunities to berth ships on DWQ are passing us by, and that the works undertaken to date have failed to address the endemic problem of not providing sufficient quay strength to withstand pressure from quay cranes.
We do understand that at present there is yet another study being undertaken regarding the regeneration of Grand Harbour. We wish to appeal to the respective authorities to consult with the stakeholders to avoid having a study which makes interesting reading but lacks in practicality.
The plan for maritime Malta must necessarily address environmental considerations, safety requirements, the exigencies of the vessels and related activities, the demands being made and the potential that can be obtained from the blue economy and the adaptation of IT to assist in better processing of information. Certain work practices which might have been relevant five decades ago – such as working time during summer – are gate stoppers in today’s environment and yet they are not being addressed.
Looking towards the future, maritime Malta needs vision, planning, resolve and action. The endemic fault in our planning model for maritime Malta has been and still is the lack of a holistic approach. There are so many competing interests in this industry that it takes real effort for the policy maker to override the pressures of the various interests and develop a holistic plan which ensures Malta’s leading role as a maritime hub. The removal and perpetuation of maritime Malta from a standalone, focused, ministerial portfolio and the amalgamation of same within Transport Malta is a fundamental mistake which epitomises the policymakers’ lack of understanding and appreciation of the contribution of this industry.
Fortunately I cannot be accused of political bias when making such a statement because this decision was introduced by one administration and retained by another political administration – both are at fault and misguided.
The focus required to plan strategically for maritime Malta entails constant engagement, active awareness of the developments in the international maritime industry, political courage to take decisions and an ongoing consultative process with the industry players.
The consultative process is one of the objectives for which the Malta Maritime Forum was set up.
One must not lose sight of the positive developments that maritime Malta has managed to achieve, but we cannot for a moment relax and assume the winning formula of the past is a guarantee of our future success. Ships of larger sizes need to be accommodated in our harbours, environmental considerations need sustainable solutions, work practices have to be brought in line with present and future exigencies, standards must rise and enforcement of rules and regulations brought to play to ensure that quality of service remains our hallmark. These are but some elements that we wish to see in the planning for maritime Malta of tomorrow.
Godwin Xerri is the managing director of Focal Marine and board member of Malta Maritime Forum.
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