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Moroccan ferry companies in turmoil

Rédigé par Christelle Marot, in CASABLANCA, le Jeudi 12 Avril 2012 - Lu 4466 fois

Moroccan ferry companies have been having a tough time for several months. And the reason for this is foreign competition, soaring costs and the economic crisis in Europe. To restore the national fleet’s long-term future, the Moroccan authorities have had to step in.

photo C. Garcia
photo C. Garcia
MOROCCO / EUROPE. Can Morocco save Comanav-Comarit, Morocco’s first private shipping company specialising in passenger transport and rolling cargo? Since late March, the entire fleet has been totally immobilised. In Spain, the Port Authorities of the Bay of Gibraltar have banned the Boughaz Express fast ferry from any activity on the Tangier-Tarifa line, because of unpaid port charges. Since the beginning of 2012, three other Comanav-Comarit ships, which were seized for unpaid debt, have been held at the dock in the Spanish ports of Algeciras and Tarifa. In the French port of Sète, three car ferries were seized by the courts because of outstanding invoices amounting to several million euro. The rest of the fleet has been immobilised in Morocco.

Today, the total amount owed by Comanav-Comarit to its European creditors is over 30 million euro. In Morocco, it would be even higher. Financially cornered,

Comanav-Comarit could withdraw from certain lines. Moroccan authorities are also working on rescheduling the company’s debts. Abdelaziz Rabbah, Minister of Equipment and Transport, also announced clarification with private actors of a “new strategy and clear action plan for the maritime sector, through a contract-programme to restore competitiveness and sustainability of the national fleet”.




Campaign for ex-pat Moroccans approaches

With the approach of the school holidays, when from the month of June there is an influx of a great number of Moroccans living abroad (MRE), including around 2.5 million entering by sea, the situation is critical. With a dozen ships, Comanav-Comarit usually provides much of the Ro-Ro and passenger transport over this period. Compared to this, the other Moroccan companies do not have enough capacity: IMTC (2 Ro-Ro’s and 2 car ferries), and Transtour, TJS, Reduan Ferry and FRS Maroc, each has one car ferry each.

Faced with this crisis, at the beginning of March, the Moroccan Ministry of Transport launched a tender for temporary operation of maritime transport of passengers and vehicles, for the period May 2012 to May 2013. This tender relates to three main lines: Tangier Med-Sète and Nador-Sète in France, and Nador-Almeria in Spain. This should benefit the Spanish and Italian competition. Italian company Grandi Navi Veloci (GNV) has already expressed an interest in the Sète-Tangier line.

Over the year, passenger traffic affects more than 3 million people. In 2010, the participation rate of the national Moroccan fleet in passenger transport accounted for 64.7%. Vehicle traffic itself is around 600,000 units, over 80% of which is provided by the national fleet.

Structural Difficulties

For El Mostafa Fakhir, Permanent Secretary of the Central Committee of Moroccan ship owners (ACPC), the difficulties faced by Moroccan shipping are many. “Passenger transport has been affected by several external factors. The crisis in Europe has reduced traffic, particularly MRE travel. There is also competition from low-cost air travel (…) Traffic has decreased, but charges have increased! From $350 per metric ton in 2006, the price of bunker fuel today rose to $850. Not counting the transfer of activities from Tangier City Center to Tanger-Med has led to a sharp increase in fees and port taxes, which have almost tripled”, he explains.

Between 2010 and 2011, passenger traffic fell by 14%. This passenger traffic provided by Moroccan companies represents sales of around 150 million euro per year. With the crisis, funding and payment terms have been reduced, further exacerbating the flag status of the Moroccan Merchant Navy.

In addition to less traffic and higher charges, local companies are suffering from a lack of competitiveness as regards onboard manpower. The opening of shipping to foreign competition in 2007 was not accompanied by a parallel change in legislation and taxation: in the absence of double registration, Moroccan crews cost more aboard European ships, than foreign sailors, who are often Filipinos. El Mostafa Fakhir bemoans the fact that “Moroccan shipping has suffered from the policy of liberalisation at any cost. The “Open Sea” in 2007, was implemented without attendant measures. Opening up to foreign competition is comprehensive but not reciprocal”.

Moroccan maritime law inadequate

Maritime law dates from 1919 and does not allow the Moroccan fleet to be flexible regarding the nationality of ships and management of seafarers. Foreign fleets that register their ships under flags of convenience or double registration enjoy tax benefits.

Despite these problems, there is no question of abandoning the sector, we have an obligation to continue service. MREs represent the bulk of passenger traffic. And for these Moroccan families, especially large families, maritime transport remains the most competitive solution”, says El Mostafa Fakhir.

The ferry is also more convenient than flying for carrying luggage and gifts for the family, when people return home. Consumer habits are deeply rooted. Crossings are increasingly more comfortable; the ferry gives families the feeling of going on a mini cruise.

The resources are there: between 2007 and 2010, private Moroccan ship owners, mainly the IMTC and Comarit groups, invested nearly five billion Moroccan Dirham (442 million euro) to renew and upgrade their fleet.

But today, there is a sense of urgency. It’s the Moroccan flag that is threatened.

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