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Opinion & Analysis

Time to refocus on Heritage

In my opinion

by Claire Montado chief executive of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust

There have been a number of announcements or significant events in the last few months that are worth tying together and reflecting on in the context of examining our attitudes and approaches to the protection and promotion of heritage on the Rock.

It would make sense that as a nation we were actively preserving and investing in our heritage as a catalyst and driver for further economic stimulation and diversification of the tourism product, but even more importantly, and as is the norm in many developed nations, also as a method of improving the living environment for residents and visitors alike. The reality on the ground though is, that although there is undoubtedly a lot of positive activity around tourism and ad hoc projects coming to fruition, there is no momentum or unifying vision that is drawing all these efforts in together to underpin and consolidate the potential gains.

At the end of March the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce issued their tourism manifesto in which they underlined their continuous call for attention and investment in Gibraltar’s tourism sector. They crucially underlined that this should be underpinned by a long term strategy from Government with ambition and commitment. Many of the areas they point to within this document have synergies with the Trust’s own aims and objectives and the Government’s Heritage Vision Policy, now published. Heritage/Tourism must be a driving principle within the decision-making process and seen as a public good. The document covers interconnectivity and visitor management, improvements in the visitor experience, all centred around Gibraltar’s USP – the uniqueness of our culture and simply our raison d’etre. The Financial sector has for decades been successfully capitalising on Gibraltar’s unique strengths within that industry – heritage and tourism need to do the same.

Shortly after this, the Ministry for Tourism launched their latest rebrand of Gibraltar’s Tourist product in the Wessex Lounge at the Gibraltar International Airport. With eye-catching visuals that tie our Nature Reserve and more traditional tourist offering together with new sharp imagery and a catchy video aimed at TV marketing abroad, this holistic approach is great. Gibraltar generally does this very well, marketing in all the right places. But (and I have to put one in) whilst the marketing element is great, are we investing in the product itself? I am not referring just to the tourist sites, but the real core Gibraltar ‘product’ - our aesthetic, our town centre and old town. There are so many elements that need pulling together to deliver it at its best and at present it seems we are picking the ‘easier’ surface bits, a coat of paint here, a plant pot there. The Town Planning Department upholds policies through the Development and Planning Commission (DPC) that aim to conserve and enhance, but the task is made more challenging by those who resist complying with the policies. It is time for a true deep urban renewal and development drive led by an Urban Renewal Champion(s) that will push the agenda and make the most of all opportunities presented.

A topical example of this is the renewed interest led by the Minister for Housing in the regeneration of the Road to the Lines. This area has been in and out of focus several times over the last 15 years with a number of beautification schemes presented that have then not come to fruition for various reasons. The fact is that this is a prime area of real-estate within Gibraltar’s old town. It needs a multifaceted approach that starts at the core by recognising the value of investment that will in turn provide for Gibraltar. There is critical need for infrastructural upgrades that only the Government, as owner of the infrastructure, is able to do. New or upgraded sewers, drainage, cable ducts and connectivity connection points that will make the area attractive to those who want to own and occupy or invest in properties in the area, and to those who will be driven to open up small businesses to attract the tourist and leisure trade, to create what will be a destination in itself. This quarter is also on the doorstep of the Northern Defences, the Moorish Castle and Old Prison Complex and is the key to unlocking all that these sites can deliver for Gibraltar’s tourism market and more. In its 2023 Manifesto the Government pledged to develop Gibraltar’s niche tourism offering. So many of these elements are interlinked here through Fortress Gibraltar trails and attractions, cultural initiatives and festivals, walks along our City Walls and events in these spaces. But our historical sites should not be viewed just as spaces for these activities, they are destinations in themselves.

And then there is the element of development. The DPC has reviewed and approved a number of large redevelopment schemes in the first quarter of 2024. Amongst them, the redevelopment of the ex-Rooke site on Queensway that will re-expose and reimagine the No. 4 Dock, an element that the Trust advocated for. The development of Monument Plaza at Winston Churchill Avenue has seen design changes to ensure that the Cross of Sacrifice remains on its original spot and is not intruded on by the new building to its rear. The Victualling Yard has had outline permission for further exploration of its conversion into an Aquarium. Although this application was strongly opposed by the environmental sector, the Trust took the view that it could neither approve nor oppose the scheme on heritage grounds at Outline Application stage as there are still a number of challenges that the applicants need to be able to satisfy in terms of preservation of the fabric, its heritage integrity and financial viability. But we shouldn’t just be looking at The Victualling Yard, the whole Rosia Bay area is just crying out for treatment as a Heritage Quarter - the under visited 100 Ton Gun site, the ex-FHQ building, Parson’s Lodge, the picturesque quality of the period buildings in this area and of course the Bay itself.

With a Treaty on the horizon that will potentially bring a freer flow between communities both sides of the Border and beyond, it is clear that elements that uphold, underscore and mark our unique identity will become more relevant than ever. By integrating Heritage into the mindset and fostering the symbiotic relationship between heritage investment, tourism and liveability aims, we can build on the tangible benefits it yields for Gibraltar. This goes beyond the economic implications but also fosters a sense of pride and identity amongst us all while encouraging cross-cultural exchange and understanding. All sectors of the community need to work together to ensure that it is embedded in our way of doing things. By safeguarding our heritage, we not only safeguard our past but also build on our resilience for a prosperous future.

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