Interview with Melo Hili over Hili Ventures’ Comino project

CEO of Hili Ventures, Melo Hili

Following my articles on the Comino project by Hili Hospitality, a subsidiary of Hili Ventures, I interviewed the CEO of Hili Ventures, Melo Hili about the project. I’m not convinced by his answers in the sense that I still think that the project is being driven forward more with a sense of vanity to acquire a piece of Malta’s coastline other than as a profitable investment for the company. It’s probably going to take them decades to make their money back. However, the readers can make their own judgment and these are the words of the CEO as he sent them without changes. 

Your subsidiary, HV Hospitality has made the purchase of the land and the hotel in Comino for 55 million. You have also issued 80 million worth in debt at 3.8% interest to secure the financing of the project which includes the construction of new bungalows. Financially, this is a big investment, even for a company of your magnitude and I find it difficult to see how you would ever make your money back. So, am I right when I say that this project is more about securing and acquiring the land in Comino or do you have any other future plans?

Some years ago, Hili Ventures took a strategic decision to begin to invest in world-class boutique hotels and retreats in Europe – with a particular interest in the Mediterranean. We aspire to build a strong international business: our objective is to own and manage a collection of properties in locations targeting travelers who seek more meaningful, purposeful, and sustainable experiences from their journeys.

When the old Comino hotel and bungalows were put up for sale, the property had the potential to be the perfect place to begin our venture into hospitality. We believe it will be an important showcase of our vision and a good contribution to our country’s tourism offering. Sustainable high-quality tourism is the future for these islands, and we are proud to be able to play our part.

Hili Ventures is making more than half a billion of in revenue every year, its companies are profitable and the debt is relatively small, so overall you have good businesses and enough capital to make myriad investments. Why spend so much capital and energy on this project especially when you are also bringing political and social controversy to your company? You can avoid the controversy and still make money elsewhere, no?

As a dynamic business, we are constantly looking to grow and diversify. We are already engaged in food service & retail, real estate, and shipping, engineering & technology in 11 countries across Europe and North Africa. We were keen to pursue our ambitions in hospitality with a project that would set a new standard for tourism in the Maltese Islands. We saw an opportunity in the regeneration of the derelict hotel and bungalows in one of the islands’ most important touristic destinations, which had been in operation without controversy since the 1960s. We believed people would welcome the conversion of this site to five-star standards without increasing the footprint – the proposed footprint is drastically reduced by 5,122 sqm, the height of some of the bungalows is lowered, and the number of guests is reduced.

Much controversy around our proposal comes from the first version (or versions) of the Environmental Impact Assessment that was subsequently revised following consultation with stakeholders and eventually approved by the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA). It is a misconception that the bungalows are for sale. While the transfer of the site (or part of it) is permissible in terms of the original concession agreement – provided that the transferred site continues to be used for touristic purposes –  our clear commitment is to manage the hotel and bungalows as one singular offering. The bungalows are not and will not be for sale and will be operated as hotel suites.

These misconceptions and the number of objections to our proposal motivate us to explain our project better and to be fully transparent with the public. Ultimately, we welcome the public’s show of interest in our project, and we are convinced that our plans will stand up to scrutiny.  

Following your answer, don’t you think that we in Malta, collectively have the obligation to conserve what’s left of the environment and our public spaces given their very rapid and fast reduction over time? And if the answer is yes, in your position, wouldn’t you in that case put your weight and your capital behind such social and environmental concerns rather than exacerbating them?

We certainly all have an obligation to conserve our environment and protect public spaces. As a business, we also have an obligation to invest wisely in a sustainable tourism product. For decades, our politicians, NGOs, media, and other civil society voices have called for investment in quality tourism so that instead of focusing on volume in terms of numbers, we target higher quality guests in fewer numbers who can make a more significant contribution to the Maltese economy with a lower impact on Malta’s resources.

If we were planning to build a hotel in an undisturbed public space, it would be fair to say we were exacerbating the problem. But the reality is that we are committing substantially more than €100 million to invest in a project that converts a derelict and hazardous built-up site into the first example of the sort of high-quality tourism project our island needs while reducing the built footprint and re-greening various areas of the site.

The Maltese pride themselves in philanthropy and I have no doubt you have your own philanthropic interests, but don’t you think that this is a too convenient way for the top 1% of Maltese society to redeem the doubts of their conscience? European industrialists have prided themselves on the conservation of national parks, and the funding of open spaces and art galleries. Building hotels and luxury resorts is surely an economic component of our GDP but the Maltese are growing increasingly tired of constantly seeing the top 1% doing the same things over and over again in all of our localities. What do you think?

We have a strong conviction in our Environmental, Social, and Governance obligations and we would be happy to talk you through some of our initiatives, which include the setting up of charities in various countries for young people and families with sick children, clear commitments to inclusion, equality, and diversity in all our markets, and ambitious targets to reduce our carbon footprint across the business, to name a few. Ultimately, the biggest impact we can have, however, is in making sustainable investments in our home country, particularly ones that contribute to crucial economic sectors. This is our commitment to the new Comino hotel and bungalows.  

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