Operators of traditional boats protest to operate route served for 400 years

Boatmen who operate traditional wooden boats (Barklori) for ferrying services in the Grand Harbour and harbour cruises staged a protest on Thursday after unsuccessful discussions with the government.

The boatmen were displaced from their traditional landing place in front of the Customs House in Valletta. Since then, a temporary platform has been provided.

For the last year and a half, representations have been made to the government to reopen the Sliema-Valletta route to the Barklori who have been prohibited from operating this route since 2012 following a concession agreement providing harbour ferry services in the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett.

This agreement gave the harbour ferry an exclusive run of the Sliema-Valletta route, excluding all other commercial vessels (including the Barklori). While the agreement provided this same exclusivity on the Valletta-Birgu route, an exemption was made for the traditional boats, which could still operate this route.

Gerald Camilleri, President of Għaqda Barklori.

For reasons unknown, the traditional boat operators did not benefit from this same exemption in Sliema, despite their clear touristic and cultural heritage value and despite having operated in both ports for 400 years, the boatmen said in a statement.

The concession should have expired after eight years. The Barklori were promised the route would be reopened for them.

In December 2020, the concession should have ended, but it was extended for a further three years until September 2023.

“However, we have been repeatedly advised that this agreement, which is unavailable for viewing, remains in force as the three-year extension has not begun to run and will only begin to run once ferry passenger numbers have reached pre-covid levels,” they said in a statement, pointing out the record numbers of tourists that continue to be announced.

The lawyers representing the boatmen from the firm Fenech & Fenech said this provision made no sense and may be considered illegal state aid:  “It is clear that tourist numbers returned to pre-covid levels long ago, and any claim otherwise is fraudulent.”

Evidence of increased passenger numbers has also been reported in the news and even admitted on social media by the Valletta Ferry itself, which is considering increasing its ferry service with the addition of another ferry to keep up with the increased demand.

“Despite recent discussions with the authorities to reopen the route, it is clear that on this point the government is being led by the nose by the ferry operator who is resisting the presence of the Barklori in Marsamxett,” according to the statement.

The Barklori have been deprived of operating the Sliema-Valletta route for the last 12 years. They expect the government to defend their interests and their right to work without bowing down to pressure from stronger players.

“We will no longer accept these obstacles. Enough is enough. We want to work the Sliema route as we have always done. The government must decide whether to support or discard the workers. We will continue to protest until we get what is rightfully ours,” they said.


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