When Noel Formosa heard the news the Azure Window had collapsed into the Mediterranean Sea, he was in Barcelona getting ready to board a flight back to Malta and back to the town of San Lawrenz on the island of Gozo.
“It was the longest flight ever,” said Formosa, 45, and the mayor of San Lawrenz.
On March 8, the Azure Window, a limestone arch which for generations had stood just beyond the small village of San Lawrenz on the western edge of Gozo Island, collapsed into the sea during a heavy storm.
“I had the feeling of loss,” Formosa said. “It was my first feeling when I was informed. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. Many people were crying.”
The news of its collapse into Dwejra Bay was a seismic shock for the islands. It almost resembled a national tragedy.
The site from where one could admire it-Tieqa tad-Dwejra. Heartbreaking. pic.twitter.com/S4XV6MyKRu— Joseph Muscat (@JosephMuscat_JM) March 8, 2017
Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, at the time called it a “heart-breaking” loss.
Here was an awesome monument, forged by the waves, which inspired a deep-rooted bond the islanders felt with their country and the sea.
It reminded them of their link to the natural world and, as generations came and went, the Azure Window became an anchored part of who the Maltese are as a people.
So strong is their attachment, some still refer to it in the present tense – even days after its collapse.
“It helped the people of Malta connect to nature,” said Formosa. “When you go there it’s like another world. We felt and still feel the positive energy from the area.”
To understand the significance of the loss, imagine Paris without the Eiffel Tower. Such was the iconic stature of the Azure Window, said Joe Muscat, the CEO of the Gozo Tourism Association.
It became synonymous with Malta, Muscat said. Its image was used to market the islands to tourists and it served as a backdrop for one of Europe’s most popular underwater diving retreats.
In 2016, Muscat said, 1.2 million people visited the island of Gozo and an estimated 80 percent visited Dwejra Bay.
The Gozo Tourism Association, Muscat said, receives roughly €1 million from the government to promote the island and the marketability of the Azure Window helped draw tourists who contribute 50 percent of the island’s gross domestic product.
Nearly 550 people live in the small village of San Lawrenz. During the summer that number typically swells to 1,000 people drawn in part because of the Azure Window.
“We have lost one of the iconic beauties of the island, but we still have Gozo, and it’s still beautiful,” said Muscat, who said it’s impossible to measure the impact to tourism the Azure Window had on tourist arrivals. “We still believe people don’t only come to Gozo for the Azure Window. We understand the extent of the loss, yet we still believe this loss will not negatively impact the numbers arriving to Gozo.”
Formosa, however, said some people in San Lawrenz have expressed concern the loss of the limestone arch could blunt this year’s tourism season.
Formosa like Muscat, however, said he is confident the region’s other natural and archaeological curiosities will make up any lost business.
But more than prompt concern for tourists and the tourist industry, the loss of the Azure Window has sparked within the people of Malta a moment of national introspection.
“There has been a lot talk going on about our natural heritage,” said Mark Busuttil, who owns a diving school on Gozo and represents the island’s diving schools as part of the Gozo tourism association. “It’s made us think a lot that’s for sure.”
Busuttil said he has been part of a group that for the past 20 years has lobbied the government in Malta to take steps to make the area of Dwejra a marine life sanctuary.
The area has been designated a marine sanctuary since 2007, but Busuttil said laws have rarely been enforced.
The loss of the Azure Window, he says, has given the topic of conservation a new sense of urgency.
Last week, the Gozo Tourism Association renewed its calls to Malta’s central government to declare Dwejra’s Blue Hole diving site a marine sanctuary.
The call was trumpeted by Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil, The Times of Malta reported, who said he fully agreed with the motion.
Also last week the local council of Gharb, a town also located on the island of Gozo, called on central government authorities to take all legal measures possible to protect another natural arch, the Wied il-Mielah, from an abnormal influx of visitors.
The Gharb council said an extensive study should be undertaken to understand the arch’s condition and how best to preserve it.
But how best to preserve something that, through the erosive force of the sea, naturally vanishes bit by bit?
Following the collapse of the Azure Window, cabinet ministers had proposed options on what to do with the site.
They included rebuilding the arch artificially, recovering parts of the arch from the sea for public viewing, installing artist renditions of the arch, using digital technology and virtual reality to recall the arch structure, or leaving the site as it is.
In a poll conducted by the Malta Independent newspaper, 68 percent chose to leave the site untouched.
Other NGOs have urged the Maltese government to dedicate any funds spent to revitalise the Azure Window site for other projects.
For Formosa, Malta must now look forward to the future and focus on what it can offer, rather than on the past and what it has lost.
“We feel a responsibility to maintain what we have by nature,” Formosa said “We lost a jewel, be still have the treasure, that’s why we don’t have to keep crying.”