News of the resumption of the Malta-Sicily catamaran passenger service has sparked mixed reactions after prices increased to compensate for a reduction in capacity to implement social distancing.

The Virtu Ferries service, which has been restricted for cargo only since March due to the virus pandemic, will resume services on July 1 in line with government’s relaxation of measures at ports.

The increase in fares will not apply for the peak season between July 18 and August 31, but for the shoulder weeks on either side meaning July 1 to 17 and all of September.

During the shoulder weeks (low peak) fares have increased by around 15%. On the other hand, the vessels’ capacity has been reduced by 40% for the entire summer season to minimise risk of physical contact.

Return tickets have increased by €20 for adults and €10 for children, an increase of 12% to 15%.

Vehicles will cost an additional €30 to board the vessel, which translates to an increase between 17% and 30%.

The revised tariffs fuelled a debate on social media amid opposing views from those who were keen to take a short break in nearby Sicily.

While some expressed their willingness to pay a premium to minimise risk as part of the “new normal” dictated by the outbreak, others pointed out that the operator’s prices would backfire.

Mario Spiteri, who runs a travel agency specialising in Sicily tours said the increase due to loss in seat capacity was “reasonable”.

Virtu Ferries have not received any subsidies from the government

However, he questioned the new tariff structure saying in certain cases, prices during low season had become more expensive than the high peak.

“This might result in few people travelling up to July 17,” he said.

When contacted, a spokes­man for Virtu Ferries noted that peak season prices had not been increased, while pointing out the company had incurred huge losses between March and June due to the passenger service disruption.

“During these months we operated a cargo lifeline service at a loss, while giving out full refunds to clients rather than compensating them with vouchers.”

While pointing out that Virtu Ferries did not shed any staff, the spokesman insisted that with the revised fare structure, it was still cheaper to travel to Sicily by catamaran rather than by air.  The company warned that the travel industry would need at least two years to reach the pre-pandemic heights.

The spokesman said that unlike their foreign cargo competitors the company had not received any subsidies from the government throughout their 30-year operation.

The operator said the 40% capacity reduction was meant to ensure social distancing for passengers and crew.

On the other hand, operating a €75 million vessel, which is the largest catamaran in operation in the Mediterranean region required a certain level of financing, the company said.

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