Malta’s last precious outpost of sanity has fallen to the enemy. Comino, the tiny jewelled islet so far preserved in almost pristine state, is set to be ruined forever.
As if the horrific tsunami of concrete poured over the area around the Blue Lagoon earlier this summer wasn’t bad enough, we learn now, almost by chance, that the Comino Hotel renovation includes a residential element. The project’s 21 bungalows are to be sold to private owners.
Astonishingly, we only found this out after an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report related to the project was published. The proposal is for the existing 100-room hotel to be demolished and replaced by a 70-room hotel, plus the 21 bungalows, built on public land, intended for sale.
That’s a radical change for a location as sensitive as Comino. And yet, there was no discussion or debate of whether this kind of change should even be considered. There was no forewarning that the developers seeking to renovate the outdated old hotel would be attempting to turn Comino into a residential address for those wealthy enough to afford what would, if allowed, be extremely costly houses.
The lack of respect that big business and government have for the population of this country is shocking. In any normal, civilised, democratic country, an area of outstanding natural beauty, such as Comino, would not be left vulnerable to the predatory greed of businessmen for whom nothing matters but the euros piling up in their bank accounts.
In any normal civilised country, before any kind of proposals were even contemplated, a properly laid plan for the zone would be created, after proper consultation with the public was undertaken, and professionals in the field drafted in. Then, and only then, would developers be invited to submit proposals based on very strict guidelines.
Instead, here in Malta, it gets done the opposite way around. Developers do their sums and base their plans on raking in as much cash as possible. The public, far from being consulted, only finds out when the plans are leaked, or, as in this case, an EIA report is published. Then the debate starts. But too late, of course.
By now the concept has taken hold, and the developer probably already believes he has every right to build and sell 21 bungalows with their own gardens, on the idyllic little island of Comino.
This would be a monumental departure from what most of us expect for Comino, which, for the past four or five decades at least, has only had two or three permanent residents, descendants of the last farmers to work the small, but fertile, fields. Apart from them, the only visitors were short term hotel guests and the day-trippers at the Blue Lagoon.
But the bombshell contained in the EIA report, that the developers undertaking the renovation of the hotel are planning to sell bungalows to private owners will change all that. These new owners, who’ll be able to live permanently in their properties, or rent them out, will, ultimately, alter the character and environment of Comino irreparably.
And, of course, how long will it be before 21 become 31, then 41? Because as we’ve seen with so many developments across Malta and Gozo, developers and their architects are among the slipperiest snakes in Christendom.
Permits are applied for based on a small, unobtrusive design. No one objects because, after all, it’s within the rules and the parameters and there’s no real basis to complain. But then, halfway through the works, another notice goes up: the developer has applied to add extra floors, or widen the footprint, or build further units. This time, people want to object. It’s no longer within the rules, no longer within the parameters of the zone.
But they’re not allowed to. Incredibly, because they failed to object to the original permit, they are barred from objecting to any later add-ons. So the amendments and additions go through, and rinse and repeat, over and over again, until they end up with a massive, sprawling project that looks nothing like the original plans that won them their permit.
Will the company that’s proposed this blasphemy resort to sneaky tricks like this? Impossible to say, of course. But the very idea that it could contemplate the violation of Comino by selling off bungalows and introducing the dangerous precedent of property speculation by future owners doesn’t augur well for their intentions.
The company behind the proposal is HV Hospitality Ltd, which is owned by Hili Ventures, run by Melo Hili, younger brother to Marin and Paul Hili (the two brothers are no longer involved in Hili Ventures).
Hili Ventures, a vast enterprise comprising shipping, restaurants (well, McDonalds), real estate, engineering, marine and IT businesses, is one of those commercial empires that exploded almost overnight during the 1990s/2000s from a solid, decades-old family shipping business, Carmelo Caruana Company, into an international-scale conglomerate with interests in a multitude of industry sectors and geographic locations.
Paul Hili has recently hit the headlines, for allegedly helping accused murderer and 17 Black owner Yorgen Fenech find a bank to cash the cheques no one else would touch with a barge-pole: the cheques his Dubai bank wrote to him when they closed his account and told him to take his money and scram.
Marin Hili’s company also has a real estate arm, Hili Twenty Two, which bought the Times of Malta’s iconic St. Paul’s Street building in Valletta in 2017.
Melo Hili’s Comino project, which has yet to receive full planning and environmental permission, is one of those critical issues that have the potential to devastate an area most Maltese have come to cherish as inviolable, natural, and truly belonging to the community.
The fury over the hijack of the Blue Lagoon by sunbed touts, and the supposed ‘repair’ of the dirt track in its vicinity ought to alert the authorities that any attempt to open Comino property up to speculative buying and selling will be abhorrent to most Maltese people.
This type of underhand trickery must not be allowed to go ahead. The idea of turning Comino into speculative real estate must be cut off at the source. Otherwise, experience has shown us too many times, we can all just bid farewell to the unique beauty and historic charm that is Comino.