Ponte Ferries, the company to start offering a new Malta-Sicily fast ferry connection, has ruled out any possibility of also making its catamaran available for the long-awaited Malta-Gozo fast ferry service.
The Shift revealed last week that Ponte Ferries Ltd, a new company registered just a few weeks ago, would be offering a new catamaran service between the two islands, challenging Virtu Ferries.
Following The Shift’s report, the company issued a statement confirming the launch of the service. Ponte Ferries said a 21-year old catamaran, the Bonanza Express, was bought by the company and renamed HSC Artemis.
It will only be used for the 3-hour long Malta-Augusta route, connecting Malta to southern Sicily, daily, as of next summer.
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. The contract had to be rescinded twice by the government, as it was deemed irregular by the Court following a challenge by Virtu Ferries.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 is owned by the Zammit Tabona family, owners of the Fortina Group and Captain Morgan, together with 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.
Replying to questions by The Shift, Edward Zammit Tabona ruled out the possibility that the company may also deploy its catamaran on the Malta-Gozo route. At the same time, the company said it “could be interested in any maritime links”.
Maritime industry sources confirmed with The Shift the impossibility of the Ponte Ferries’ catamaran also being used for the Gozo-Malta fast ferry service:
“The port of Augusta is much further away than Pozzallo – currently serviced by Virtu Ferries – and it will take Ponte’s catamaran some three hours to cover one leg of the route. So, basically, if the catamaran is put on the Malta-Augusta route on a daily basis, as it is planned, there is no time left for other operations with the same catamaran.”
“Also, the Ponte catamaran is too big and cannot even berth in Mgarr harbour. This means that Ponte’s reasoning is totally correct as they cannot even use the catamaran on the Gozitan route, even if they wanted to,” the sources added.
In 2013, the Gozitans were promised a new fast ferry service between the two islands by the newly elected Labour government. Despite repeating the pledge in the 2017 electoral manifesto, the fast ferry service is still nowhere to be seen and the project is no longer mentioned by the current administration.
Back in 2015, the same shareholders of Ponte Ferries had formed a new company, Islands Ferry Network to partner with Gozo Channel and start offering a fast ferry service. Yet this attempt, by the Zammit Tabona family – owners of the Fortina Group – and Magro Brothers failed, twice, as the court declared irregularities in the process and the contract was cancelled.
Virtu Ferries, the current fast ferry service provider to Pozzallo, situated less than 50 nautical miles away from Valletta, had won the original bid by Gozo Channel to start offering the Malta-Gozo fast ferry service.
Yet, for reasons still unknown, the Office of the Prime Minister had intervened to stop the process. An eventual second call was awarded to the Zammit Tabona-Magro company but was cancelled after the irregularities found by the Court.
An attempt by Transport Minister Ian Borg, to issue an exclusive concession for a private company to offer a new ferry passenger service between the two islands, this time not a fast ferry, was also called off earlier this year after irregularities were again flagged by the Public Contracts Review Board.
Despite promises by Transport Malta that another call will be issued again, this has not yet happened.
The entry of Ponte Ferries in the Malta-Sicily fast ferry service is expected to provide stiff competition to Virtu Ferries – the incumbent for over 30 years. Consumers are looking for a possible ‘price war’ making the crossing to the holiday neighbouring island cheaper.