Following recent reports by The Shift on how the Natural History Museum within Palazzo Vilhena in Mdina had been turned into an open-air restaurant this summer without a call for tenders, a similar lease has surfaced for Ta’ Bistra Catacombs.
According to a contract signed between Heritage Malta CEO Noel Zammit and the owners of the Cheese & Cuts restaurant in Mosta, the courtyard of the early Christian catacomb complex was leased out six times for private commercial activities in the summer of 2021.
The activities lasted six hours each and accommodated around 60 guests a night.
But, as in the case of Palazzo Vilhena, the agency is resisting questions about the events and its policy for leasing historic sites for commercial use.
According to the restaurant’s owners’ online marketing posts, guests were invited to book their tables for a ‘Grill & Chill’ night, in which “artisan platters followed by a selection of juicy mixed grills are served under the stars” with live background music.
The venue was leased by Heritage Malta for just €285 per event, including VAT.
Asked on whose initiative the site was leased and whether there had been a call for tenders for the contract, Heritage Malta did not reply.
Nor did its CEO explain how the agency was determining which sites are to be commercialised for private events, how much the venues are being leased for, or whether the agency intends to draw up a policy for the practice.
Sources at Heritage Malta told The Shift that while there might be a limited scope in commercialising certain sites at least occasionally for much-needed funds for the agency, the system adopted by its chairman Mario Cutajar and Zammit is both questionable and amateurish.
“In other countries there are standard published rules, with transparent price lists and established protocols,” the sources said.
“In Malta, they are just giving out contracts on the whims of certain people and inventing ridiculous rates for people with contacts. It’s a complete sham.”
While in the case of Ta’ Bistra the use of the site set organisers back less than €1,500 excluding VAT for the whole series of summer events, the Palazzo Vilhena gastronomy events’ organisers, Grotto Tavern, got even better terms.
With dinners selling for €120 a head, they paid just €50 a night for the use of the large Mdina venue.