Serious concerns have been raised over the deteriorating service Gozo Channel offers as the state company remains stuck with a 36-year-old vessel running at almost half capacity while the three other ships in its fleet are getting older and more expensive to run.
The concerns are amplified by the government continuing to increase subsidies to the company running the service while no plans or investments have been announced to replace the fleet.
Finance Minister Clyde Caruana announced in the last budget that subsidies for Gozo Channel will climb to €15 million in 2024.
Gozo Channel’s attempt to rejuvenate its fleet, at least partially, also recently backfired.
Twice in a row, between 2022 and 2023, a public tender to find another vessel to replace the 36-year-old MV Nikolaus failed with not even one offer.
Not even the Greek owners of the Nikolaus bid for the tender; instead, they kept their direct order at €10,000 a day, excluding fuel expenses, all paid by the state.
Due to its old age, the Nikolaus cannot even be operated at a total capacity of 650 passengers; instead, it takes a maximum of 350 during winter.
Various attempts made by Nationalist Party MP Chris Said in parliament to force the government to spell out its plans for the future of Gozo Channel, particularly the replacement of its vessels, have been met with silence.
Gozo Channel owns three vessels, the Ta’ Pinu, Gaudos, and Malita, built at the now-defunct Malta Shipbuilding in the late 90s. However, the three vessels are now almost 23 years old and are regularly put out of service as technical faults and maintenance requirements mount.
In addition, their engines are old and outdated, consuming vast amounts of fuel and emitting high levels of pollution.
Since Gozo Channel has been operating at a significant loss for many years, there is little in the way of money to invest in new vessels, which cost tens of millions of euros to build and hundreds of thousands more to maintain and run.
The government has not closed the door on privatising the service, although this could risk the jobs of hundreds of employees and contractors. The Gozo Channel company has long been used by politicians as a leading employer in Gozo.