Visiting Comino will never be the same again as the ferry service to the tiny, picturesque island will now be streamlined and run by one single Maltese company.
A single company has been given the exclusive rights to ferry people from Cirkewwa and Marfa to Comino, and will now be the sole operators of this important, lucrative and essential ferry service after winning an uncontested government tender.
The rights to ferry people over this small patch of water has been met with mixed reactions, with competitors and Maltese and Gozitan fishermen calling out what is being seen as a monopoly… and others welcoming in the new service that many hope will force the operator to keep to a certain standard.
So, who controls the ferries to and from Comino?
A company named Comino Ferries Co-Op, which currently runs a passenger service and is made up of seven separate ferry operators.
They were the only company that bid for the tender issues by Transport Malta back in July, specifically to run a service from Cirkewwa and Marfa. They will now be running the service for the next 15 years.
For a company to even apply for the tender, they had to reach certain criteria amounting to millions of Euro.
“The tender set out a number of conditions, including the use of new eco vessels, a fixed schedule, increased frequency, extending the summer timetable from 6pm till 8pm and broadening the nature of the service to operate to Santa Maria Bay in addition to the Blue Lagoon,” the company said.
They said they would be investing €5 million in the new upgraded service, and were quick to point out that “visitors stand to benefit enormously – not only will they enjoy improved comfort and reliability, but for the first time they will also be able to visit two locations in Comino for the price of a single ticket – which will also relieve the ever-growing pressure on the Blue Lagoon in the summer months,” they said.
The unchallenged and expensive tender garnered the anger of the other roughly 40 Maltese and Gozitan boat operators.
“This tender is an absolute monopoly and a number of workers and operators that have spent hundreds of thousands on their boats and other equipment will be affected by it,” said one person speaking on behalf of a boat operator to Comino.
The man went on to say that he had heard the cost to appeal this tender is “around €75,000”, an amount impossible for most boat operators to fork out.
“This is another case of a monopoly and corruption and we expect the new Prime Minister to take the needed action on this and leave everything as is so that everyone can eat, and not just one person,” the man said.
And it wasn’t only operators – the Gozitan Tourism Association appealed to Transport Malta to reconsider giving control of the Comino channels and ports to a single company.
Calling the directive “discriminating commercial vessels owners and operators, many of which are Gozo based”, they noted that hat Comino Ferries Co-Op were also “being allocated the entirety of all landing quays in Cirkewwa, Marfa and around Comino”.
“These landing quays as stated in the Port Notice are being declared “Priority Landing Places” for the use of the chosen operator,” GTA said. “This condition will be hindering the normal operation of the unscheduled sea transport services offered by the operators and owners, who up to now offered their boat transport services to a wide range of clientele including divers, conference and incentive groups, and other leisure services.”
Concerns over what happens when the landing quays are not available for any of the other companies were raised as well. GTA called on Transport Malta to ensure “a fair level playing field for all operators, and guarantees the right to all unscheduled licensed boat owners to embark/disembark at any time their clients from the landing quays mentioned earlier”.
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However, Comino Ferries Co-Op is adamant about the improvements they would be bringing to Malta’s ferrying schedule and standard.
Saying that “pick-ups for the purposes of pleasure, fishing, or diving will remain unaffected” they reiterated their pledge to upgrade the ferry service itself.
“The provision of ferry services to Comino has been unregulated for decades – which has given rise to haphazard, unreliable and erratic operations – and all other operators had been offered the opportunity to submit a bid when the tender was issued,” they said.
“None chose to do so,” they ended.