Concession for ferry service modified following objections

A Request for Proposals (RfP) issued by Transport Malta last month inviting bids for an exclusive concession of a new passenger ferry service between Malta and Gozo has been modified following objections by possible contenders.

A request for a review of the call issued by Transport Malta was filed by one of the bidders before the final deadline for submissions, asking for certain restrictive clauses deemed to limit competition be removed from the tender document.

The Public Contracts Review Board (PCRB), which acts as a first appeals chamber for aggrieved bidders, ordered the postponement of the submission deadline by a month, giving interested parties more time to present their proposals.

The call will now close in October.

Maritime industry players described the call as “the latest attempt by the government to grant an exclusive public concession to a particular company close to the Labour Party”.  This was denied by potential bidders approached by The Shift.

Transport Malta, under the direction of Transport Minister Ian Borg, issued an RfP to put in place, for an exclusive period of 15 years, a scheduled passenger ferry service between various locations in Malta and Gozo.

The service, which will be distinct from the traditional Gozo Channel service between the two islands, is aimed at transporting passengers and tourists between several fixed berthing facilities around the islands which the government is building at its own expense. These include St Paul’s Bay, Sliema, Valletta and Mġarr.

Industry players are questioning the public interest element in this concession and the actual local demand for such a service, which is to be given by the government’s selected operator on an exclusive basis, valued at €115 million.

The selected operator will consequently be given a monopoly and will automatically exclude any type of competition on these routes for the next 15 years.

Earlier this year, Captain Morgan, which has just invested in four new vessels, has started offering an almost identical service on a ‘Hop On, Hop Off’ basis, linking Sliema to Buġibba, Mġarr and Comino.

The company, led by Edward Zammit Tabona, was also recently given a controversial permit to build a temporary jetty in St Julian’s to be used for the service, despite uproar by the local community, including the local council and various NGOs.

In a formal objection to the government call filed by Supreme Travel, which provides maritime transport services, the company argued that the call was clearly intended for Captain Morgan as it limited submissions to bidders that have already conducted scheduled sea passenger ferry services for the past 10 years.

Supreme Travel said in its objection: “The request was discriminatory, unproportionate and restrictive as bidders were limited to two, namely the Gozo Ferry service and the Sliema-Valletta-Three Cities Ferry service, the former being operated by Gozo Channel and the latter by Captain Morgan.”

On its part, Captain Morgan strongly rejected this assertion.

Replying to questions by The Shift, Zammit Tabona said these assertions were false and intended to damage his companies.

“The vessels which are currently in Malta (used for the ‘Hop On, Hop Off’ service) unfortunately do not qualify for this tender,” he insisted.

“The core technical requirement in the RfP is that the vessels are required to be eco-boats. The vessels we have, and which are already in Malta, do not satisfy this definition and would require substantial modifications to meet the required standard,” Zammit Tabona added.

The CEO of the Fortina Group did say his company had expressed interest in the bid, stating that if submitted it would be made together with a Bianchi Group company, Marsamxetto Steamferry Services Ltd, which already operates a similar service between Sliema, Valletta and the Three Cities.

After hearing objections, the PCRB agreed that the call must be modified, removing the clause requesting a proven track record of scheduled ferry passenger services.

This is the third similar tender issued by the government.

In 2017 and 2019, the government issued a tender which included this latest service. Both were withdrawn following court action which concluded that a side agreement signed between Gozo Channel and a company led by Captain Morgan was illegal.