Interview to the Founders (A)
What is your current designation at the Merill Rural Network?
Rural Network Manager
Merill is a pioneer with respect to eco-tourism in Malta. Can you briefly describe the origin of the Merill Rural Network and why it was set up?
The first idea was to create alternative tours for tourists. Even today, excursion booklets found in tourist areas feature excursions which are very similar to what used to be offered twenty years ago. Back in 2010, we saw this as an opportunity, given that the global trends were already pointing more to 'experiential tourism'. So we developed 'sight-seeing' tours which tooK place less popular areas such as Dingli and Mellieħa.
Today our notion of ‘Eco Tours’ has evolved a lot, and it continues to change. We moved away from simply 'sight-seeing' tours and ‘walking excursions', and focused more on the involvement and empowerment of the local rural community - the main stakeholders of rural Malta.
After a few months of operation, we quickly realised that: 1) we simply couldn't access some of the most beautiful rural areas unless we partnered with landowners and 2) conducting eco tours without roping in the main protagonists of rural Malta was not going to contribute to the long-term upkeep of such vulnerable areas.
How would you describe eco-tourism, including its main characteristics?
Throughout the years we spent exploring this sector, we came to realise that the words 'ecotourism', 'rural tourism' and 'agritourism' are used interchangeably. Since we’re talking about the local scenario, this is not completely wrong, however ecotourism should technically revolve around the ecology of the country. As Merill, we prefer referring to what we do as 'Rural Tourism'. Although Malta has a good number of ecologically-important sites and features, we also link these to the main green areas of Malta and Gozo - Agriculture. If you combine this with the international principles of Ecotourism, it’s easy to see why we had to include farmers and artisans as our main partners. One of the main principles of ecotourism is to empower the local communities. In Malta, we have identified a number of farmers who still work small patches of land in very sustainable manners, and families who still produce genuine products (even processed ones) following traditional methods. Creating conservation projects around these treasures has become one of our main objectives.
How is eco-tourism linked to sustainable development?
If conducted properly, and within a common national policy, ecotourism would help reach all of the targets needed to achieve long-term sustainability.
Ecotourism should be extremely environmentally conscious (eg. we are against any type of new-buildings just for the sake of creating new eco/agri tourism facilities, when there are already existing farms which are being forced to close down).
By targeting different kinds of market segments, the economic targets might be reached with a smaller quantity of tourists. This is not impossible, since the global market trend of tourists has changed drastically, and even more tourists are looking for these kinds of holidays. So we should not keep on referring to Ecotourism as a niche market, but as a newer way how to look at national tourism. But that is quite a big leap!
Socially, it engages directly the local people and promotes what they actually do in real life, rather than trying to change their way of life to accommodate tourist needs.
Is there a small or large demand for eco-tourism from visitors to Malta and from locals? Can Malta cope with this demand?
There is very little demand for such activities. The main reason is that, even though MTA has tried to change tactics, the Maltese Islands are still essentially marketed as 'the Sun & Sea islands'. We’ve started to include culture yes, e.g. religious festas and local festivals, but the visual marketing is not always consistent with that approach. When ecologically-sensitive areas or activities are included, these are most often portrayed out of the real existing context. For example, the Blue Lagoon is frequently featured in tourism marketing projects: how many tourists really experience the place in its natural state when they get to visit? Are they satisfied with their experience? The answer is, unfortunately, 'very rarely'.
Another reason why there is little demand for 'eco' is that tourists are literally dropped in Urban Malta, which seems, and actually is, a mass of concrete. If they land at Luqa airport, or berth at the Grand Harbour, their experience of Malta is one of complete lack of Rural.
Of course, there is still a good amount of rural areas in the north and south, but most tourists are not always exposed to them. So we cannot expect that tourist visiting the island would have a huge demand for ecotourism.
However, once we manage to pull tourists into the rural areas, they are definitely intrigued and their experience is one of a pleasant surprise. Merill has managed to survive these past years, not by attracting ecotourists (because that’s a tourism authority’s job) but by convincing tourists and tourism operators who had no idea that Malta and Gozo have this to offer, to try one of our experiences.
It's also a fact that most locals are not really aware of our surrounding rural areas and their potential, so if tourists happen to ask about 'eco', the answer would most probably steer the guests away from any such activities. Thankfully, this attitude is gradually, but surely, changing.
Do you take care of your own marketing locally and overseas and is anything being done on a national level to promote Malta as an eco-tourism destination? In your opinion, should Malta be promoting itself more as an eco-tourism destination?
Yes we take care of our own marketing both locally and overseas. Nationally, there have been a couple of attempts to draft a national rural tourism policy, to date, we have not seen any tangible outcome.
In our opinion, given the remarkably small size of the archipelago, we should have a 25-year plan where we shift from mass tourism to smaller-scale, more quality-oriented tourism, including ecotourism.
What is Malta doing to pinpoint, develop and safeguard its potential with respect to eco-tourism?
Extremely little. Any developments are thanks to individuals within public authorities, small-scale tourism operators and NGOs.
How closely are eco-tourism and other types of tourism, such as agri-tourism, linked in Malta?
These are very closely related. Malta’s natural areas, apart from the coastal areas, are hugely impacted, both positively and sometimes negatively by agriculture. Therefore both eco and agritourism in Malta are very much related.
Are the Malta Tourism Authority and the Ministry of Tourism working on any policies related to eco-tourism? What are the current local and European Union policies, if any, and are there any plans for action to develop this type of tourism further?
We are not aware of any current policies by the MTA or MoT. Locally and at EU level, there are funds which would be targeted at ecotourism or even community-based tourism, but most of the times these have to be initiated by private operators.
Where do you obtain most support for your initiatives from and who would you consider to be your best partners in terms of eagerness to be involved in such initiatives?
Most of our activities are funded and supported in-house, through our different initiatives (not necessarily related to tourism, but enough to fund the projects). We also try to source different kind of fundings, through local, regional and EU funds.
Our best partners are definitely the farming families together with artisans who embrace the potential of being within the Merill Rural Network.
Apart from the Malta Tourism Authority and the Ministry of Tourism, are there any other entities involved, local or international, who are or should be involved in relation to eco-tourism in Malta?
There are many stakeholders who are, or should be, involved. Ecotourism should not be an activity cut-out from all the rest but should be part of a larger sum. Authorities, restaurants, hotels, farming associations, NGOs, local councils, host families… there are many entities who should embrace this and strive to work together.
Which are the most sought after experiences and/or visits to sites that you offer?
Our best-sellers are the ‘Olive Grove Experience’ and the ‘Food & Wine Tour’.
But it depends a lot on the season, for example in Summer it could be the ‘Sea Salt Harvesting Workshop’
What would you consider to be the greatest advantages of eco-tourism for Malta?
The fact that although we are a highly over-developed country in terms of urban Malta, and somehow we still managed to maintain the traditional aspect of agriculture and local products.
Also, the small area of the country is an advantage in itself, as most tourists will be able to experience much more in less time.
What disadvantages, if any, are there of eco-tourism for Malta?
Ecotourism may seem to be an expensive option, which in reality leaves a lower contribution margin than conventional tourism.
What, if anything, do you think is hindering Malta’s development as an eco-tourism destination?
The lack of public policy and general roadmap.
Lack of respect or trust in Maltese agriculture.
What do you think could help Malta become more of an eco-tourism destination? What would you like to see happening in this field in the near and more long-term future?
The best way to help Malta become more of an ecotourism destination is if we, as a nation, show the will to achieve that. That means, tourism operators, the general public and authorities.
We would like to see more dialogue taking place, together with implementation and support for already existing projects.
In comparison to the eco-tourism in other countries, how does Malta’s eco-tourism sector compare, in your opinion?
Potentially we could rank very well. We can say that a 100% of our guests are truly satisfied and impressed with the level of service. But this is of course sometimes related to the surprise element… very few of them would have expected anything of the sort on the Maltese Islands, so we also attribute our 'success' to a case of under-promising and over-delivering.
Realistically, there’s much more to achieve to be able to compete with neighbouring countries