The Shift can exclusively reveal a looming commercial war on the Malta-Sicily route as a new fast ferry company is expected to challenge the status quo and start offering a new catamaran service between the two islands, challenging Virtu Ferries.
Ponte Ferries Limited, a new company registered just a few weeks ago, has already chartered a 21-year-old catamaran, currently operating in the Canary Islands, to use for the new Malta-Sicily crossing. It is not yet known when the service will start operating as plans by Ponte Ferries are still kept under wraps.
The shareholders of the new fast-ferry company are those who failed to acquire a lucrative government tender to start operating a fast ferry service to Gozo on behalf of Gozo Channel. The contract had to be rescinded twice by the government, as it was deemed irregular by the Court following a challenge by Virtu Ferries.
Registered last October, Ponte Ferries Ltd is owned by the Zammit Tabona family, owners of the Fortina Group and Captain Morgan, together the Gozitan Magro Group – producers of tomato products.
Fabio Muscat, the sole shareholder of Raggio Investments Ltd, is also a minority shareholder in the new ferry company.
According to specialised maritime news agencies, Ponte Ferries has lately acquired the Bonanza Express, a catamaran now renamed HSC Artemis, which will soon be sailing to Malta from the Spanish Canary Islands.
So far it is not known to which port Ponte Ferries will operate, although indications show that the Zammit Tabonas have already made preliminary arrangements to start using the port of Augusta, situated in the province of Syracuse.
Recent announcements by Virtu Ferries, which has been operating the Malta-Sicily service for decades, indicate that the company was not caught unaware of these looming developments.
Just a few days ago, Virtu announced that it will double its daily services next year, starting a daily crossing to Catania, apart from its regular ongoing daily service to Pozzallo.
The company also announced that it will dedicate two catamarans to operate the daily service, with the possibility of providing an additional service to Augusta.
Welcoming added competition, maritime industry sources told The Shift that the rivalry expected on the Malta-Sicily route should mean a better and cheaper service for customers.
They also said that this was not the first attempt of the Zammit Tabonas to offer this challenge, although past attempts have failed.
A lasting battle
The Zammit Tabonas have been attempting to enter the fast ferry service industry for a long time.
As donors to the governing Labour Party, the Zammit Tabonas have positioned themselves for a lucrative government contract to start offering a fast ferry service between Malta and Gozo, subsidised by taxpayers.
Forming Islands Ferry Network with the Magro brothers, they tendered for a Gozo Channel contract twice as part of a new Public Service Obligation. Following the adjudication of the contract to Virtu Ferries, the government cancelled the process and changed the goalposts through a new tender.
The second attempt by Islands Ferry was struck down by the Court as a contract signed with Gozo Channel was termed illegal.
The third and last attempt was made just a few months ago when the Zammit Tabonas, through a company with the operators of the Grand Harbour ferry service, announced their intention to compete for another exclusive government concession, this time to offer passenger ferry service between various ports in Malta and Gozo.
Once again, following a challenge by Virtu, which accused the government of designing this tender to accommodate the Zammit Tabonas, the tender was scrapped and ordered to be issued once again.
While the Zammit Tabonas vehemently denied any collaboration with the government to ‘win’ this concession, Transport Malta has so far failed to issue another Request for Proposals.
Maritime industry sources told The Shift that the Zammit Tabonas’ attempts to enter the fast ferry market through a government concession alerted their rivals that they had set their sights on the Malta-Sicily service.
“A government concession on the local market would have made their ‘planned’ Malta -Sicily service much more viable,” industry sources said.