Comino’s controversial deckchair encroachments will be allowed to continue operating for another year without any tender procedure, Minister for Tourism Clayton Bartolo confirmed on Tuesday.

He was replying to a parliamentary question posed by Opposition MP and former Minister for Gozo Chris Said, where he asked for an update on the process to issue a call for tender to select the deckchair operators for the 2024 season.

However, Minister Bartolo simply said that the current deckchair operators are being given another extension.

He said that the decision was taken “after the exercise carried out last year, where there was a reducion in deckchairs and umbrellas, a part of one of the encroachments was moved to another area, and another encroachment was removed, vacating the area of the jetty, the bay, as well as the ramp that leads to the bay.”

The exchange comes after reports earlier this month that deckchairs are once again out in force in the popular tourist spot known as the Blue Lagoon, prompting the Opposition to call on the Government to address the “miserable” situation.

The Ministry has previously objected to descriptions of the operators’ rights as ‘concessions’, preferring to use the term ‘encroachments’ – leading to speculation that this is an attempt to skirt around an EU Court of Justice ruling that beach concessions should not be renewed automatically.

The current operators have been given extensions for years, with Minister Bartolo claiming that a management plan for Comino needs to be completed before any tenders are issued. However, that management plan is long overdue, having supposedly been completed by 2016.

Meanwhile, the Government has steadfastly refused to reveal the contracts it has with the deckchair operators, with multiple freedom of information requests going unanswered.

The encroachments were the subject to multiple protests in 2022 as locals expressed their frustration at having the popular Blue Lagoon beach entirely covered by deckchairs and umbrellas, leaving no space whatsoever for the public.

The pressure by activist group Moviment Graffitti led Minister Bartolo to promise that “Comino will be different next summer” – a statement that became something of a joke, even being the tongue-in-cheeck title of an art exhibition put up by local art gallery Valletta Contemporary in collaboration with NGO Friends of the Earth as part of the Malta Biennale.

The difference alluded to by the Minister is that deckchair operators are no longer allowed to use the sandy part of the bay and the jetty, with promises that the number of deckchairs would be reduced by 65 per cent.

The encroachments have in fact been reduced significantly in size, although some operators simply moving their equipment onto the protected garigue instead.

Comino remains extremely popular with tourists, drawing thousands of visitors every day during the peak summer season. The Instagram-friendly blue waters of the Blue Lagoon have long attracted crowds, but as tourism boomed over the last years, the small area has become increasingly cramped.

Therefore, some critics argue that enacting measures that safeguard its lasting appeal is only good business sense.

The entire island is a protected nature reserve, making commercial interests uneasy bedfellows. A proposed redevelopment of the existing Comino Hotel by Hili Hospitality has also attracted heavy criticism from many of Malta’s environmental organisations, despite the developer’s promises of a “zero-net-carbon” project.

Featured Image:

Moviment Graffitti / Facebook

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