Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Moroccans dismayed by Ferry delays

At first glance, the queues in the ferry terminal seem far from unusual.

But the photo of this queue (not available online!) was taken last Friday at midnight, several hours after the ferry to Tangier was meant to have set sail.

FRS Ferry Jet similar to the one operated from Gibraltar to TangierScores of passengers were left with little option but to stand around waiting for the ship to turn up, in what regular users said was just the latest in a long history of delays involving the Tangier ferry operated by Ferrys Rápidos del Sur (FRS).

In any other port, dissatisfied customers would simply switch ferry operator. In Gibraltar, however, there is only FRS and its £35 round-trip ticket across the Strait.

On Friday, the Tangier ferry should have left at 9.15pm. In the event, it sailed at just after 1am on Saturday morning.

Passengers who had arrived before 8pm to board the ship were left waiting for about five hours, much of that time in the dark and without toilet facilities. The queues, including vehicles, stretched from inside the ferry terminal all the way to the nearby petrol station.

There were men, women and children of all ages there, most of them Moroccans but also including some locals and tourists heading off for the weekend.

Many of those waiting to board the ship said they faced long journeys after arriving in Tangier, with some of them travelling as far inland as Fez, Meknes or Rabat.

The delay in Gibraltar would only add to their journey.

“We’re sick of suffering,” said one Moroccan man. “All we want is for the ferry company to meet their commitments.”

“Why does no one do anything?” another man asked.

Gibraltar Port Authority officials on the scene on Friday said they would look into the continued delays but, in reality, their options for action are limited.

Part of the problem is that the FRS ferry operates several itineraries that include stops in Tangier, Tarifa and Algeciras, as well as Gibraltar. The company makes money by running its vessels on as many itineraries as possible, with each of ship operating five or six round trips across the Strait of Gibraltar daily.

But delays at any of the ports naturally have a knock-on effect on subsequent calls, particularly during this time of the year when hundreds of thousands of migrant north African workers are heading back to jobs in Europe after the summer holidays.

The numbers are truly staggering. According to Spanish authorities, during the outbound phase of the Operación Paso del Estrecho, 1.4 million passengers and 342,357 vehicles caught ferries from Europe to Morocco, most of them from Algeciras.

As of last weekend, 792,884 passengers and 185,166 vehicles had already made the trip back to Europe since mid-July, most of them boarding ships in Tangier.

With nine companies operating services across the Strait of Gibraltar from both Spain and France, congestion in the Moroccan port is a major issue.

“There is a physical reality to contend with because there are only a limited number of berths in Tangier,” said Luis Mora, FRS managing director.

Weather conditions can also have an impact on timetables, not least because the vessel operating the service from Gibraltar to Tangier is a fast ferry, a type of ship whose performance is particularly susceptible to the state of the sea. In simple terms, it has to slow down in rough weather.

“FRS does everything it can to minimise these delays,” Mr Mora said.

“A delay in Gibraltar or any other port will filter through to the subsequent itineraries and cause us problems.”

For the Moroccan community here, which has no other way of getting home but by sea, such excuses and explanations, however plausible, offer little comfort. With no other option but the FRS ferry to Tangier, they can do little more than endure the delays as gracefully as possible and hope for the best.


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