Friday, February 18, 2005

A new dimension to the Tourist product, say Funicular Developers

F. Oliva interviews project developer Leslie Ratcliffe (21st Century Rock) and consultant Brian Francis

Q. It is evident that the funicular project has raised some controversy. How do you view this?

A. We have been following with great interest the various opinions expressed. Some of these are genuine, but in our view are mostly misguided. Others are based on misinformation or in the worst cases on distortion of information. It is of course understandable that the project should raise questions, but one must view the proposals in a much wider picture than the often narrow view presented by some of the affected parties.

Q. Concerns have been raised by the Gibraltar Heritage Trust, GONHS, ESG, the Tourism and Transport operators and more recently the TGWU. How do you consider their objections founded?

A. It is difficult to comment on the reasons behind their objections and in particular their motives. We would rather deal with the key issues than to criticise any of the groups individually. We think that each one has their own agenda and in forming a lobby they may not be sharing common ideals on all of the issues except in opposing the project mainly for defensive reasons. But, before we deal with these issues the public ought to know that the idea of a funicular or an aerial ropeway in the Casemates area is not a new one. Indeed in the early 1980’s the Planning Department was actively considering the concept and they had all the support of the Development and Planning Commission. You see there has always been talk of the Northern Defences and the tunnel network in the area – commonly known as the Jungle because of its tremendous tourist potential.

Q. So why hasn’t it happened sooner?

A. There are a number of reasons – the frontier had not yet opened, the requirements of the Ministry of Defence were very different then, but perhaps more importantly it was probably more of a question of investor confidence or lack of it at the time. You see, the Gibraltar Government had just about commenced a programme of economic diversification having to move from a heavy reliance on a defence orientated economy to one driven by the private sector. The development of the Finance Centre, Tourism and the Port became priorities. Gibraltar has come a long way since then and Gibraltarians should be proud of their achievements. It is clear that despite all the ongoing difficulties there is strong investor confidence in Gibraltar. We believe we can build on that success and move forward into the 21st Century. We believe that the project will provide a new dimension to the tourist product in Gibraltar and will open up new opportunities for everyone including those who currently feel threatened by it.

Q. How are you going to achieve that?

A. Well clearly our plans involve an international marketing campaign to promote Gibraltar highlighting the experience. We have already undergone intensive studies and we are ready to show how we can increase the number of tourists visiting the Rock. If we disclosed these plans now we would be accused by those who oppose it of “marketing spin,” but we can assure everyone that these are real. But first of all we must provide the physical part of the project – i.e. the funicular itself – and we have been concentrating on this over the last 2 ½ years and its feasibility.

Q. Are you saying that it has taken you so long to get this far?

A. Indeed. We first made enquiries with the Ministry of Defence in August 2002. Since then we have been continuously engaged in an extensive programme of technical studies and a very wide consultation process, which has been very fruitful. We have as you know, engaged the top experts in the field – from Foster and Partners – world leading Architects to Wessex Archaeology – Specialists in heritage and of course the Swiss Engineers, who are the world leaders in funiculars and aerial ropeway systems. We have also carried out geotechnical and geophysical surveys and we submitted our Environmental Impact Assessment Study, all in accordance with planning requirements.

Q. Do you think there are benefits for everyone in the project?

A. Well, as we said at the start of this interview, it is understandable that those who feel threatened should wish to protect their interests. But, we must not overlook those who are in favour of the project. The Federation of Small Businesses (GFSB) recently conducted a poll and their members were in favour 2:1. Then there is always the silent majority. We have been greatly encouraged by the support received from many ordinary citizens. Many are in fact confused, and when we explain the project in detail, they have immediately seen its overall benefits. Unfortunately, only the negative aspects have been highlighted, and often in a very exaggerated manner. It would be foolish to say that the project will not have any impact in the short or long term – of course, there will be, and these have been identified in order to mitigate their effects.

Q. What are the main objections and how do you propose to address them?

A. Basically, you can classify them into 3 main ones – Heritage, Environmental and commercial issues. On heritage, we have engaged the services of Wessex Archaeology to ensure that no physical damage is caused to the historic walls and monuments. The plans have been prepared so as not to disturb these – in fact there is a minimum number of supports in order to avoid contact along the route. The most difficult part is in fact the first half, i.e. from the bottom station to the proposed new tunnel just under Hayes Level – but we have been assured that there will be minimum disturbance. There is, of course, a difference of opinion with the Gibraltar Heritage Trust – they are concerned that the project would adversely affect the proposed bid of the Northern Defences for World Heritage Status. Yet, our own Heritage Consultants advise us that the project would in fact enhance any such bid, because it would provide an efficient transport system, which would enable the area to be opened up for tourist purposes, thereby making economic use of an otherwise inaccessible area. The most important benefit from a heritage asset point of view, which is often overlooked is the proposed new tunnel and the fact that it would intersect Hayes Level. This means that all of the World War II tunnels and the Siege Tunnels would be accessed from a new midway station at Hayes Level. We also overlook the fact that because the Funicular is on a track, the carriage can stop at any point along the track. This also means that it is technically possible to stop the car at the level along Moorish Castle Estate to provide a public transport system to that congested area. We explained this to the ESG and it is a pity that they have chosen not to mention this in their press release. The other important environmental issue, which we would like the public to know is that because the new tunnel intersects Hayes Level, all tunnelling would commence from there, up and down, so that only at the last moment of opening up the entrance and exit would there be any disturbance.

Q. Will there be any disturbance in getting rid of all the waste rock?

A. Golder Associates, our Engineers are currently studying the possibility of re-cycling the excavated limestone for construction. Thus the rock would be crushed within Hayes Level to provide coarse and fine aggregates for a concrete batching plant within the tunnel, thus minimising impact. Again, we must emphasise that the top consultants, with local experience in tunnelling have been engaged to advise on all of these aspects and have been advising the Gibraltar Government for approximately 20 years.

Q. What about the environmental impact on flora and fauna in the upper half of the route?

A. Again, these issues have been addressed in the Environmental Impact Assessment, but one important point is that because the top station is enclosed, and because of MOD security reasons, people would not be able to wander around the area and any disturbance would therefore be minimal. We have in fact in the past mentioned the example of Cape Point in South Africa, where a funicular railway provides tourist access to an area of wildlife protection. Cape Point has over 1200 species of flora and fauna and over 12 different species of wild animals in habitat. You can visit their website at www.capepoint.co.za. We know that the design of the top station has caused some concern, but we must also take into account that its design has been largely influenced by the environmental desirability to generate electricity from the levanter and anabatic winds and solar energy. It also has to accommodate the core activity of the educational experience providing audio visual exhibitions of Gibraltar’s history, culture and heritage.

Q. But don’t you think that no matter how well you address the heritage and environmental issues you may not be able to allay the commercial fears of the present transport and tourist operators?

A. No possibly not, but in a competitive market that is a reality. We must emphasise however that we are confident that by improving the tourist product we would increase the number of tourists visiting Gibraltar and the “cake” will therefore be much larger and many more people would benefit. Visitors would stay for longer periods and possibly return because there would be much more to offer.

The stark reality is that the Upper Rock is in dire need of substantial repair and modernisation, from toilets to road surfaces and underpinning. The numbers of vehicles, taxis, coaches and others, is far too great for the existing infrastructure. The Government has already discussed with the tour operators the need to increase entrance fees and to spend millions over the next few years on these repairs. Without this expenditure which some say is too late and too little, our “heritage” is being gradually destroyed. Gibraltar has to have a sensible and viable alternative, which the Funicular is providing. To use an asset that so far has been left to waste away is simply ensuring that we are thinking in a practical manner for the benefit of everyone.

Q. So, are you confident the project will go ahead?

A. Yes, we are confident. We have addressed all aspects of the project over a long period of time including all of the technical and financial issues. We are confident that we have addressed all of them and that we have the enthusiasm to carry this exciting project through. We have engaged the best professionals of the world in all the disciplines and we sincerely believe that this project will be greatly beneficial to Gibraltar… to its tourist product and to its educational value in heritage and cultural matters. We are grateful to the public for their feed back – good or not so good – during the public participation process and we have tried our utmost to accommodate those views where possible. Indeed we would not have invested so much time and money if we did not believe in its success and placing Gibraltar at the forefront of the 21st Century.

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