Ferry operators yesterday asked the government to clear up the business environment in the sector and promote conditions for the complete liberalization of domestic coastal shipping industry. Representatives of the Coastal Shipowners’ Union (EEA) told a news briefing this will allow new investment to flow into passenger shipping, upgrading the quality of services. They stressed they require no state support but the harmonization of national law with EU legislation, which would allow the substantial growth of companies and enable them to also meet the needs of connecting the islands with the mainland. EEA takes the view that problems plaguing island connections could have been dealt with successfully, had the state created an environment in the sector in which shipowners knew the rules and could draw up their strategy. «Today, with the existing institutional framework maintaining state intervention, no company can make serious policy plans because it simply cannot be certain about anything,» said Blue Star Ferries CEO Michalis Sakelis. «If EU Regulation 3577/1992, providing for full liberalization of internal sea transport, comes into force, companies will be able to plan a growth and modernization policy, that is, bring in new modern ships to upgrade the level of services offered even more,» he added. According to Sakelis, within the next few years, the state will face serious problems in coastal shipping transport as as many as 42 of 85 large operating ships are to be withdrawn by 2013, with the first 24 to be withdrawn by 2008. This, shipping circles believe, means that coastal shipping will be unable to meet demand unless the investment environment is clarified so companies can invest and bring in new ships, as well as restructure their fleet to successfully fill the gaps created by withdrawals of old ships. Third-party levies Coastal shipping companies, as EEA’s representatives said, do not want to increase fares. On the contrary, they believe the total cost of fares could have been lower had the state adhered to the law and abolished levies in favor of third parties included in fares which amount to 33 percent of the total cost. Such levies are made in favor of porters, boatmen and harbor workers, while a 3 percent surcharge for the Seamen’s Pension Fund (NAT), which goes on passenger and vehicle insurance, is covered anyway by other means. «We are saying that this ‘head tax’ in favor of third parties, incorporated in fares and paid by the passengers without any benefit, could have been abolished, thus automatically reducing the total cost of fares to the passengers’ benefit,» stated Hellas Flying Dolphins CEO Gerasimos Strintzis. He claimed the state still owes the coastal shipping companies some 50 million euros from compulsory discounts in 2003, imposed by the Merchant Marine Ministry; the difference was to have been paid by the bodies which sponsored the passengers who traveled at a discount. Ferry operators also believe that ports lag behind ships in modernization and are asking the state to intervene for improvements «here and now.» It was said that while companies are interested in traveling to islands as often as on a daily basis, port infrastructure is not safe enough to dock the ships.