No company has expressed interest to lease or operate a fourth ferry between Ċirkewwa and Mġarr.
When the Gozo Channel tender for the lease of a fourth ferry closed on Thursday, no bidder had submitted an application, not even the company currently operating the fourth ferry, MV Nikolaos.
Senior government sources said the Greek-owned company had indicated to the government that it would be willing to continue offering the service under a contract similar to the one it has now, but was reluctant to tender for it.
The government’s options now are to reissue a tender or an expression of interest, stop the current fourth Gozo ferry altogether, or issue a fresh direct order to the Greek company.
Sources said that given the increasing number of vehicles and passengers crossing the channel every year, Gozo Channel cannot afford to operate without a fourth ferry and the government is, therefore, inclined to go for a fresh direct order.
The MV Nikolaos was built more than three decades ago and started operating between Malta and Gozo in 2019, when it was brought to Ċirkewwa with its own crew on a direct order from the government. It can carry 650 passengers and 160 cars.
The sources added that ferries of its kind are sought “all around the world” and options for Gozo Channel are limited given the specifications of Ċirkewwa and Mġarr harbours.
A ferry fit for Gozo Channel’s needs must have a height that compliments the existing Ċirkewwa and Mġarr berths, be a ro-ro or ropax vessel, (with ramps at both ends) and be able to sail in open waters.
The channel between the Maltese islands is considered open water because it is subject to harsh weather, but most ferries on the market are designed to sail on lakes, they said.
Gozo Channel's three other ferries - Ta' Pinu, Malita and Gaudos - were built in Malta to local specifications.
The Nikolaos was welcomed upon its arrival since the other ferries could not keep up with passenger and vehicle numbers, resulting in long queues at the terminals, but it has been a frequent source of complaint because of the poor arrangement of its passenger facilities and internal car ramps.
In 2019, then Gozo minister Justyne Caruana had said the vessel was to remain in operation up until a tender was awarded for another vessel to join the Gozo channel fleet, and last year, Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri confirmed in parliament that its lease would not be permanent but until a new ferry was commissioned or leased.
Last month, Gozo Channel issued a tender for “the hire of one ropax vessel under a time charter agreement”.
A ropax, or ro-ro vessel, is a ferry specifically designed to hold wheeled vehicles that can be rolled on and off the ferry easily and that has a capacity for passengers.
The tender closed on December 15 with no bidders.
The MV Nikolaos and its crew cost the government €8,000 daily during the off-peak season and €12,000 daily during peak seasons and Gozo Channel bears the cost of its fuel.
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