Gozo and Planning Minister Clint Camilleri announced that a new vision for the beleaguered Gozo Channel will be unveiled by the end of 2024.
The revelation came in parliament after Nationalist Party MP Alex Borg asked questions about any plans to purchase a fourth vessel to help keep the service afloat.
Instead of answering the question on when the tender for the new vessel would be issued, Camilleri said the fourth ship will be “part of a new vision which the company will announce at the end of this year”.
The minister provided no details of what the vision might entail, or whether the service could realistically continue until the end of this year.
Gozo Channel is in significant financial hardship and is subsidised with some €15 million a year.
With a fleet comprising three old vessels, the addition of a fourth ship has been long promised and deemed necessary to ensure the service can continue.
Since 2019, Gozo Channel has been leasing, through a repeated direct order, the 36-year-old MV Nikolaus from a Greek shipping company at a cost of some €10,000 a day.
Due to its old age, the vessel can only be used at half capacity during the winter months according to international maritime rules.
In 2022 and 2023, the company issued a public tender to try to replace the vessel. However, on both occasions, no bidders came forward, not even the owners of the Nikolaus, who preferred to keep offering the service through the lucrative five-year-long direct order.
In the meantime, while the government has scrapped the idea of connecting the two islands through a tunnel, the rest of Gozo Channel’s fleet also needs replacement as the vessels, all built in the 90s, require ongoing and expensive maintenance and getting more expensive to run.
Gozo Channel has also been operating without a proper Public Service Obligation (PSO) agreement, a legal requirement for obtaining state subsidies under EU rules.
The original agreement with Brussels came to an end in 2017. An attempt to issue a new PSO was struck down twice by the Court as manoeuvres were made by the government to assign it to a pre-selected private partner against competition rules.
No new PSO tender has been issued since 2019, and the government insists it is still working on its technicalities before publishing the offer.