Updated 1.15pm

Gerald Camilleri, best known as id-Dajdu, has fond childhood memories of his father sailing the family’s dgħajsa tal-pass across Marsamxett Harbour, ferrying passengers between Sliema and Valletta.

He would join his father on these daily trips in the traditional water taxi, a service operating in Maltese ports for over 400 years, and he would pass the time selling bottles of Pepsi to daily commuters. 

Now 70, Camilleri is one of the handful of boatsmen barklori - at risk of having his licence suspended and being criminally charged.

This is because his 150-year-old boat is among those that are again carrying passengers across Marsamxett Harbour despite a port notice banning them from doing so.

Lawrence Mizzi is one of the youngest barklori Ivan Agius is calling for barklori to be treated fairly Credit: Karl Andrew Micallef

The ban is in line with an exclusive concession granted to ferry operations in Marsamxett Harbour in 2012, the transport ministry says.

The company - Valletta Ferry Services - operates a catamaran ferry service between Sliema and Valletta as well as another between Valletta and the Three Cities.

But the ban is endangering both livelihoods and heritage, the barklori say: “These boats are part of our Maltese cultural heritage and have been used for the past 400 years, and now they want this part of our culture to die,” Camilleri, president of the Għaqda tal-Barklori, told Times of Malta.

“I do not understand how this situation has developed. If we want to kill the tradition, I will take my boat to Castille and set it on fire myself. Our rights should be protected.”

'Boat will die a natural death'

Dating to the Knights of Malta, the traditional dgħajsa tal-pass was a popular means of transport. At a time when there were no jetties, it operated as a ferry across both Marsamxett and the Grand Harbour.

Today, around 45 dgħajjes are keeping the tradition alive.

But for the past 12 years, the barklori have been excluded from operating the Sliema-Valletta route due to the ferry concession.

Despite having a licence granting them the right to operate in both harbours, they are only allowed to offer tours from Sliema and must take passengers back to Sliema at the end of the tour.

“This boat will die a natural death if it is not taken care of. For years we have tried our best to reach out to the authorities about this issue, but we always face closed doors,” Camilleri said.

Ivan Agius, another boatsman, did not mince his words: “We had two plates [two harbours] we could eat from. In 2012, they told us we can no longer eat from this plate [Marsamxett],” he said.

He said many families were struggling because of this restriction. 

Unkept promises

He recalled how the Labour Party had promised the boatsmen that in 2020, once the eight-year concession expired, they would again be allowed to operate the Sliema-Valletta route.

Yet, the promise was shortlived and the concession was extended for another three years, with the reasoning tied to COVID-19 and because some wharves had not yet been completed.

When the renewed concession expired in 2023, the boatsmen reached out to the transport minister and Transport Malta but the issue was continuously shelved.

“This is why we decided to protest,” 31-year-old Lawrence Mizzi said. 

The boatsmen have had enough of being ignored and are now operating the Sliema-Valletta route in breach of the port notice. 

“The discussions have gone on for far too long. We have four boats here every day, and plan to continue protesting until we get what is rightfully ours.” 

They took the action despite the extension of the port ban “until further notice”, issued on June 20, a day after the barklori began to operate in protest.

“This protest action was immediately met with threats of suspension of licences of the dgħajjes tal-pass and threats to file criminal complaints against the barklori,” said their lawyer Martina Farrugia.

“In response, the barklori insisted that their protest action was protected and any enforcement action taken against them would be tantamount to a breach of human rights.”

'Government plans to find a solution'

In reply to questions, a transport minister spokesperson said: “The government intends to keep on discussing with the barklori and other stakeholders in order to find a solution that is agreeable to all.”

The barklori say they have faced countless other obstacles hindering them from operating on a level playing field with competitors. 

For example, Agius recalls how in the Grand Harbour, passengers who travelled with the barklori and the ferry could use the Barrakka lift for free. The situation changed when the lift was privatised.

“Behind our backs, there were discussions to allow the Valletta ferry passengers to use the lift for free but our passengers had to pay €1. Because of this, we lost many daily commuters.”

Then, earlier this year, the government announced harbour ferry crossings would be free of charge for anyone with a Tallinja card. 

“They didn’t offer us the same thing,” Agius said, explaining that almost all local users of the dgħajsa tal-pass began to use the free service offered by the ferry.

The boatsmen have also had to beg for upgraded infrastructure.

They have been in discussions to upgrade the Vittoriosa landing place since 2018, and six years on, those upgrades have still not been done.  There is no signage or information stand showing that the landing is for the barklori and they often find other private boats docked there.

The entrance to their landing is blocked by ticket-selling booths of other companies.

“We have to call Transport Malta to inform them that a boat is illegally at our landing,” Agius said.

“We have to act like policemen. And we see so many boats overspeeding, even the ferry overspeeding, but no enforcement stops them.”

Agius said the boatsmen want what is rightfully theirs and to be treated equally, including free use of the lift and the Tallinja card for their passengers.

Il-Kollettiv reacts

In a statement on Wednesday, activist NGO Il-Kollettiv said it stands by the barklori’s fight for their livelihood.

Il-Kollettiv noted that one of Valletta Ferry Services' shareholders - the Zammit Tabona family's Fortina Holdings - has many other maritime interests.

Company subsidiaries operate trips to the Blue Lagoon and operate one of the Gozo Fast Ferry services. It had also sought permits to develop a jetty at Balluta and was part of a consortium hoping to develop a marina in Marsascala.

The latter two projects were dropped.

Valletta Ferry Services is registered as Marsamxetto Steamferry Services Ltd and is a joint venture between the Fortina Group and Bianchi family's Mercantile Shipping and Coaling Company Ltd.

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