Aegean islanders are desperate for regular, frequent ferry service

Island life this winter was disrupted when three ships were taken out of commission on account of age, another three were withdrawn for repairs and the seven hydrofoils were replaced by a more commercially productive high-speed ferry. A few days ago, schools and stores closed and black flags were hung out along the wharfs on Chios, Samos, Kalymnos and Icaria. Islanders are protesting because ferries visit many islands no more than once a week. When they do come, the voyage is long, uncomfortable and tiring. Fare increases And this is just the beginning. Despite state subsidies – 15 million euros from the Merchant Marine Ministry (YEN) and 36 million euros from the Ministry of the Aegean and Island Policy – coastal shipping is going through the worst crisis of the past 50 years, even though fares are constantly rising. Matters will worsen in 2006, when more than 20 ships are withdrawn and only 17 vessels remain to meet the needs of islanders. In 2004, two years after the protective cabotage system was lifted, the gaps in Greek coastal shipping have widened dangerously. The 12 years since 1992 (when Greece managed to get a 12-year exemption from the EU from the liberalization of passenger shipping) were not well used. Opportunities were missed and the state did not help set up a ferry network to offer adequate services to the islands and allow companies to develop. New investments were not sufficient; few new vessels were built; companies shrank, debts to banks and the dramatic rise in the price of fuel made many of them cancel orders and sell off their ships to foreign owners. Kimolos, Folegandros, Sikinos, Thirasia, Anafi, Donousa, Amorgos, Koufonissia, Schinousa and Irakleia in the Cyclades all have problems, as do Samos, Chios and Psara. Worst off are the Kalymnians, who have to travel 17 hours to get to Piraeus. Other islands in the Dodecanese that face problems are Patmos, Leros, Leipsoi, Astypalaia, Nisyros, Kasos, Karpathos, Tilos, Simi and Kastellorizo, served by ships that are in very poor condition. Dodecanese Prefect Yiannis Mahairidis told Kathimerini, «The region lost at least 100,000 tourists this year, especially from northern Greece, due to the lack of ships.» Insiders blame the law passed by former Merchant Marine Minister Christos Papoutsis for the present impasse. The only law PASOK passed during the 12-year exemption period, it came after the tragic shipwreck of the Samina. «Papoutsis’s law turned its back on entrepreneurs and let the sector become bogged down,» Coastal Shipowners’ Union President Stelios Sarris told Kathimerini. «Now it is at a complete dead end. The Aegean is at risk of being left without ships.» The law in question not only turned its back on entrepreneurs, but on the modernization of port facilities (because it absorbed only 16 percent of potential EU funds). As Aegean and Island Policy Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis told Kathimerini: «Papoutsis managed to declare the majority of the lines in the Aegean (about two-thirds) uneconomic, with the result that YEN held competitions for 27 uneconomic lines and the Ministry of the Aegean for 42 such lines. And that was while paying out 41 million euros a year. And instead of benefiting from this, islanders are paying higher fares every year. Papoutsis supposedly liberalized coastal shipping, but in essence he retained state intervention in the market (such as shipping routes and fare structure). The institutional change is a one-way process. We have to act in such a way as to attract entrepreneurs.» YEN is producing a 300-million-euro plan to subsidize uneconomic ferry lines, but Minister Manolis Kefaloyiannis has made it clear that the sum will be spent after a special study to make sure the funds are put to effective use. It has already been announced that the government intends to spend 88 million euros on covering uneconomic lines. Kalymnos port not suitable for large vessels While problems with coastal shipping affect the entire Aegean, Kalymnos has been the worst hit. The island, with its 18,000 inhabitants, is caught in an impasse. The three ships which used to serve it in the past (belonging to the DANE group) have been withdrawn. The Blue Star, a reliable, modern ship, cannot approach the island’s port because it does not fit. The new harbor has been under construction since 1998, but it is being built according to such outdated specifications that large ships will not fit into it either. As Kalymnos Mayor Giorgos Roussos told Kathimerini, «Now we have to seek new projects to solve the problem.»