TRAVEL AT HOME: Diving attraction at Exiles – coming soon?
Divers in Malta might soon be able to enjoy a new underwater attraction if the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) gives the go-ahead for the scuttling of Tug 2, a tugboat, at Exiles in Sliema at a depth of around 22 metres.
The tugboat, which is 30m long and has a beam of 7.5m, was built at the Malta Drydocks. Originally, it was owned and operated by Kalaxlokk Co. Ltd and in 2000, it was purchased by Bezzina Marine Services Ltd. The vessel has been docked at Bezzina Shipyards for the past 12 years and it has recently undergone the necessary cleaning and preparation for use as a diving wreck.
An environment planning statement about the project has already been submitted to MEPA by ADI Associates. Members of the public can send in their comments to MEPA until August 24.
The proposal for the scuttling of the boat was made a few years back by the Professional Diving Schools Association and the Malta Tourism Authority. Wrecks and artificial reefs help improve the national diving product and boost tourism. Besides enriching the diving experience, wrecks also attract fish.
Diving is a principle niche tourism market according to the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA). In order to avoid over-taxing existing natural resources, the MTA embarked on a programme to increase the number of safe dive sites in Malta through the scuttling of boats.
Nine wrecks have been scuttled specifically for diving by various organisations and entities over the past 20 or so years: the MV Rozi and the former patrol boat P29 in Ċirkewwa; the Um El Faroud in Żurrieq; the Imperial Eagle off Qawra Point; the MV Xlendi, the MV Cominoland, and the MV Karwela at ix-Xatt l- Aħmar, Gozo; the tugboats Number Ten and the St Michael at Żonqor Point, Marsaskala, as well as the former patrol boat P31 off Comino.
Not only have these wrecks proven popular with divers, but they also provide a means whereby the environmental pressure on the more traditional and more sensitive dive sites is relieved, thus enhancing the tourism product and the diving experience for local and foreign divers while protecting natural sites.
A survey carried out in 2010 by the MTA showed that approximately 4.3% of all tourists who visit Malta partake in diving activities. In addition, relative to other tourists, these visitors tend to have larger disposable incomes and are typically self-employed, office workers, managers or professionals. Their spending impact on the Maltese economy is further enhanced since dive tourists are more likely to hire cars and rent self-catering accommodation.
Tourists who come to Malta to dive typically stay for relatively long visits, with the average length of their stay amounting to 10 nights. Compared to the time when the sector was in its infancy in the 1970s, the profile of divers has changed, with an increasing number of women and persons of mixed ages and abilities. Most are “recreational” divers, for whom the dive experience is perhaps limited to between one and three days and diving is one of a range of activities done while on holiday.
Most dive tourists to Malta originate from the UK, followed closely by Italy. Although a much higher proportion of the total dive tourists originate from Spain, Germany, France, the Nordic countries and Ireland, their numbers are lower individually.
The main pull of diving in Malta is the warm, clear water and the spectacular underwater scenery. Wrecks, whether historic or artificial, also contribute considerably to the attraction in this respect. The industry enjoys a very good reputation for excellent shore diving; in most other diving destinations, the use of a boat is essential. Shore diving appeals to divers who travel with non-diving companions and who do not want to spend time travelling to and from sites. The smallness of the Maltese islands is also seen as a benefit, as it is possible to travel in relatively short times to sheltered and accessible areas.
Overall, Malta is considered a safe destination for diving, especially by the English-speaking markets. When compared to other dive destinations, the Maltese diving industry also enjoys an excellent reputation for personal attention and customer service.
On the down side, the lack of fish and marine life, especially when compared to competing destinations, acts as a detractor. Furthermore, the industry has never managed to effectively market the Maltese islands as a winter diving destination, even though the water temperature and diving conditions in winter are superior to those of most western European countries in the summer months.
A total of 44 dive sites were identified as part of the “Master Plan to Support a Sustainable Diving Industry for Malta”. Of these sites, 29 are accessible from shore while the rest are boat dive sites. The shore dive sites are served by 21 access points; most have basic formal or informal infrastructure that allow divers to park vehicles, put on their diving gear and enter the water. The shore dives offer opportunities for divers of all skills.
Dive attractions vary from wrecks to unusual and spectacular features of the marine topography such as the Mini Blue Hole in Marsascala and the Cirkewwa Arch. Many shore dives also provide divers with the opportunity to explore a variety of reef wildlife such as the Coral Gardens in St Julian’s and the Cirkewwa Reef.
Findings from an online survey of registered dive centres in Malta and Gozo and individual recreational divers revealed that the most frequently used shore dive sites are those in Wied iż-Żurrieq and Ċirkewwa. These include the wrecks Um el Faroud, a P29 Patrol Boat and Tug Boat Rożi. Other popular sites are the HMS Maori off Valletta and the tug boats at Żonqor Point. The most popular boat dive sites are the Imperial Eagle, the HMS Stubborn and the Bristol Blenheim bomber.