Ferry firms warn of dire future

Responding to widespread protests throughout the archipelago regarding sparse, expensive ferry services, coastal shipping operators warned yesterday that conditions might deteriorate further unless European Union directives calling for the full deregulation of the industry are fully implemented. Representatives of the Coastal Shipowners’ Union (EEA) told a press conference that ferry services could be further depleted over the next four years, as nearly 30 percent of the current, aging fleet of 85 large vessels now serving the islands is due to be withdrawn by 2008. A further 20 percent will be withdrawn by 2013. Unless the government takes measures, such as fully deregulating the market, but not necessarily handing out state subsidies, to encourage investment in the coastal shipping sector, EEA said, it is likely that many of these ships will not be replaced. «Under the current institutional framework, which maintains state intervention, no company can make serious policy plans because it simply cannot be certain about anything,» Blue Star Ferries CEO Michalis Sakelis said. He added that, if EU directives on the sector’s full deregulation are implemented, «companies will be able to plan a development and modernization policy, that is, bring in new, modern ships.» On Wednesday, residents on many Aegean Islands shut down public offices, schools, shops and businesses in a bid to pressure the government into boosting subsidies for unprofitable lines, upgrading services and building safer harbors. EEA representatives said yesterday that subsidies were not needed to improve services, arguing that ferry tickets could be up to a third cheaper if a series of indirect charges – which go to third parties – were abolished.