Monday, June 7, 2010

Servicing the diving industry

The summer season has begun, and the usual streams of tourists hoping for some early June sun are flowing into Malta. Numbers are up and record movements are being registered at the Malta International Airport.
But there has been another set of tourists that have been steadily making their way to Malta since March – and they are a niche group – divers. Diving tourism is one of the niche markets that Malta serves. We are blessed with all the natural resources one could desire as a diver – a concentration of sites within easy reach, clear blue seas, stunning underwater rock formations, an abundance of wildlife and calm waters. In short, it we have probably one of the best – if not the best - diving destination that Europe has to offer. Of course, the industry is backed up by very good professional schools and instructors who can take anyone from an advanced seasoned diver to a total beginner on an amazing trip underwater.
Diving is an extreme sport that requires safety, more safety and yet more safety to enjoy and there are medical facilities in both Malta and Gozo to cater for diving injuries, such as the bends where a decompression chamber is needed. The recent installation of a decompression chamber in Gozo was very welcome news – and one should not underestimate the positive effect such facilities have in influencing divers to chose a destination.
We are doing well, and we are making a good business out of diving, but of course, there is more that can be done. Perhaps one of the biggest problems is that only divers know exactly what is needed to improve our infrastructure. One of the main things that springs to mind is the provision of shelter from the sun and even simple ledges to rest equipment on before and after a dive to facilitate the donning of equipment (no easy task in sweltering 40 degree heat in a wetsuit).
There have been improvements at various sites – including Zurrieq and Cirkewwa in terms of the installation of ladders, handrails, footholds and more. But the government really should think about the installation of permanent (or semi permanent) structures to shelter people from the sun and to allow them to kit up easily. Showers to rinse off suits (which are expensive and deteriorate if left to dry in the sun) would also be welcome. These could even be used against payment and will leave an indelible positive impression on those who visit.
And of course, this brings us to the issue of wrecks. The main wreck sites in Malta are the HMS Maori in Valletta, the Um el Faroud in Zurrieq, the Rozi and P-29 in Cirkewwa, the P-31 off Comino and the Imperial Eagle. There are others, but these are the most popular in terms of depth vis a vis experience, ease of reach, wildlife and all round enjoyment. There is also a nice trio of wrecks just off Gozo. The truth be told, more are needed. Of course, this all has to be done in terms of complementing the natural environment – but more sites are needed. There were a few botched jobs – the Xlendi is one of them and gets more dangerous by the season. There was also the sinking of two tugs in Marsascala – but the lack of sea life and poor visibility means they never really became popular. To understand, we reiterate, one must be a diver. A simple chain, anchor or statue takes on a whole new life underwater. Surely, we can find some bits and pieces of junk that can be installed as underwater attractions. Old AFM and police equipment, perhaps an old bus, a gantry crane, an old aircraft, old tugs – literally anything will do. The bonus to all this is that if these artefacts are placed correctly, they will also stimulate reef life. But placing them in inaccessible areas, too deep or in zones with bad visibility will do no one any favours.

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