Caronte & Tourist ferry group will remember 2019 as a very special year. It started with the arrival of a new shareholder, the UK-based investment fund Basalt Infrastructure, and is drawing to a close with a contract for at least two new ferries to be deployed on the Sicilian routes. Basalt are said to have  established a long-term partnership with the existing shareholders of Caronte & Tourist, the leading Sicilian ferry transport group.

The company owns and operates 29 roro and ropax ferries across two main business segments, providing safe and reliable transport links across the Stretto di Messina and to the Minor Islands in the region.

The company is the largest operator of ferries in Sicily and has been operating since 1965, maintaining essential transport links across the Sicilian islands. Today the group retains over 1000 contract staff and is investing in a new eco-friendly fleet.

Can we revisit briefly where and in which segments of the ferry market Caronte & Tourist is active today? 

Caronte & Tourist as a group was founded in 2003 and was created by the merger of two historic shipping companies, the Calabrian Caronte and the Sicilian Tourist Ferry Boat. Both companies started their business with connections between the ports of Reggio Calabria and Messina, as an alternative to the services provided by Italian State railways.

Last year the company carried over 6 million passengers, more than 650,000 commercial vehicles and 2 million cars on the maritime links to and from Sicily, with the high-speed ferry on the Strait of Messina and on the cabotage route linking the ports of Salerno and Messina. But Caronte & Tourist also provide connections with the small islands around Sicily and Sardinia through NGI, Maddalena Lines and the shipping division of Siremar, the former public ferry company recently 50% acquired through the subsidiary Caronte & Tourist IsAole Minori.

What about the results of the group expected for the current year end (2019)?

Caronte & Tourist Group (C&T)  is a leading organization in the shipping industry, covering short and medium distances, with roro  ships that cross the Mediterranean. It has net revenues of 215 million Euros and a gross operating margin of 44 million Euros. Over the years, C&T has met important goals regarding financial and economic performance and a significant margin increase, maintaining a solid financial structure in that manner. In 2016, C&T expanded its business through the acquisition of ferry activities that operate as connectors of the Sicilian islands (ex Siremar).

The investment plan aims at further developing activities and reinforcing the fleet efficiency with the overall goal of strengthening its presence in the shipping industry. Target revenues and gross operating margin for 2020 stand respectively at 250 million Euros and 65 million Euros.

What are the plans for the future?

Caronte & Tourist’s development plan for 2018-2022 features investment aiming to reinforce the fleet’s efficiency, revenue consolidation, and marginal growth with respect to current values. Looking to the future, the group is thinking about environmentally sustainable transport. One achievement in this area was the realization of Elio, the first ferry to sail in the Mediterranean using the LNG, fuel with a very low environmental impact, whose delivery ceremony took place November 17, 2018.

What is the role of Caronte in the cabotage business?

Caronte & Tourist Group connects the ports of Messina and Salerno at least once per day in both directions. The cabotage fleet consists of two ships, one of which is in service (Cartour Delta) and the second (Epsilon) is leased to third parties. Ferries have a capacity of 600 to 1,000 passengers, can reach a top speed of 25/26 knots, and can carry a maximum number of 800 cars (or 150 commercial vehicles). The route Messina-Salerno, operated by Caronte & Tourist, provides at least six weekly departures from each port and is exclusively carried out by Cartour Delta.

What are the plans of the company in terms of new routes and markets to explore?

Always keeping in mind our limitations, but also our potential, we continue to look for markets where we can somehow export experience and specific skills. Croatia has been and is still one of them. Others may present themselves with similar characteristics of short and medium range cabotage or local public maritime transport services.

How would you comment the difficulties met by Caronte & Tourist to open a new line in Croatia last summer?

I think it was a reaction to defend a market which has been closed up to now. Some sort of protectionism is predictable but unacceptable in the European Union context in which competition and freedom to make business should be a pillar. I hope that, with the continuous support of the Italian institutions, conditions of normal legality will be restored soon.

Does your company have a second vessel (sister ship of the Elio) on order in Turkey at the moment? If so, when is the delivery of this second unit scheduled?

Our vessel Elio is still… an only child. However, we have already decided to build a second ship that will take advantage of the sailing experience of the Elio and further increase its already high potential.

Is the performance of the new ferry Elio in line with your expectations?

Certainly. Elio has characteristics of technological innovation (both on the nautical and propulsion level) and also innovative design characteristics that are recognized by all sides, starting with our customers.

What about the next investments expected in new ferries? When will you order new ships for Siremar? How many units? Characteristics?

Apart from the new investment related to the Strait of Messina that I mentioned before, the company also decided to build a new ship to be used in the connection with the Aeolian Islands. Other ships, at least two, will be built in partnership with the Sicilian Region within the public contract for the maritime link between Sicily and the other small islands. All these ships will have to be fit for reaching and mooring at those small ports even in bad weather conditions, which today unfortunately often isolate the communities that live there.

What is the current scenario in Italy for a ferry company like yours interested in using LNG as a fuel for ferries on short sea links?

The current scenario is in flux. Plans to build LNG depots are on the table but in order to provide gas for ships you still need to transport the fuel by road from France or Spain to Italy. A stabilization of the distribution system and, consequently, of the cost of LNG will complete a revolution that is already underway, as demonstrated by the strategic choices of many companies, including first and proudly Caronte & Tourist.

Interview: Nicola Capuzzo

Photographs: courtesy Caronte & Tourist