Virtu Ferries was invited to submit an offer to Gozo Channel to provide and operate the fast ferry service between Malta and Gozo. According to Gozo Channel’s document of request, the successful “partner” was obliged to have “the necessary experience, expertise or resources to provide a fast ferry service” and expected “to meet the applicable specifications, requirements and criteria applicable for the fast ferry services as required by the tender.”
The tender also required the operator to have five years’ experience in ferry operation, and a minimum of €10 million in turnover and to provide audited financial statements for 2016. Thus, the successful candidate had to be an existing and well-established local or foreign high speed ferry operator. The successful bidder was required to comply with strict technical, operational and financial requirements of the Public Service Concession (PSC) issued by the Ministry for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects.
Virtu Ferries Ltd. submitted an offer to Gozo Channel, in full compliance with both the requirements dictated by Gozo Channel. And more importantly, the requirements of the main EU-wide tender also as dictated by Gozo Channel’s request for a partner. Disappointingly, at 7.26pm on Friday 13thApril, Virtu Ferries was informed by Gozo Channel that its offer had been rejected.
It shortly transpired that Gozo Channel had chosen as a “partner” a new company that was set up on the 10thApril 2018, not even one week prior, with shareholders having no previous ferry owning experience and certainly no experience in high speed ferry operations as specifically dictated by the tender.
Virtu Ferries has stated that it is highly irresponsible of Gozo Channel to award a contract of this magnitude, both in terms of its fundamental importance as a life line to the peripheral island of Gozo with the Maltese mainland, as well as in terms of its substantial value which will be partly financed by public funds, to a new company that as yet does not even have the basic required International and Flag State certification to operate high speed ferries, let alone the five years’ experience to do as required under the tender.
Virtu Ferries believes that it is hugely regrettable that Gozo Channel will allow the operation of a 350-to-400 passenger high speed ferry to an operator with no prior experience at all in the shipping sector. This leads to the question as to why a seasoned ferry operator such as Gozo Channel would require a partner at all, if not for the required experience in high speed ferry operations, with the necessary certification and financial standing as required under the PSC and as stated in Gozo Channel’s own request for a partner, and which the successful bidder’s new company cannot provide.
With 30 years’ experience in high speed ferry ownership, operating on routes between six European countries, Virtu Ferries remains committed to high speed passenger and vehicle transportation by sea. It has been operating routes in the Adriatic Sea to Venice for the last 15 years and routes between Morocco and Spain for the last six years. The company was also recently given the go ahead by the Italian authorities to operate sea passenger domestic routes from La Spezia to the renowned historic sea cliff villages of Cinque Terre, in Northern Italy.
Virtu Ferries has commenced legal action and submitted a request to the Public Contracts Review Board, asking it to order Gozo Channel not to proceed with the fast ferry tender process on the grounds that the preferred bidder is ineligible.
Virtu Ferries has also informed the Director of Contracts that Gozo Channel has not followed the procedure regulating public procurement. As a result, the public contract review board has suspended the process.