The Montserrat Ferry Service Comes to an End

By Craig Brewin, craig.brewin@fotbot.org

Those familiar with Montserrat will know that one of the biggest problems it has faced in its quest for economic self-sufficiency is its access problem. Access has suddenly become a big issue again, with the Government deciding not to renew the current ferry contract, leaving a small fleet of 50-year-old 8-seater Britten-Norman Islander aircraft as the only way onto the island for the foreseeable future.

Montserrat has a small population of under 5,000 people and does not get a vast number of visitors. The journey, which often requires some discomfort, is a factor in this, and all trips have to start and end in Antigua. The sea can be rough, and flights can be cancelled if there are high winds. Before COVID-19 struck things were looking promising with last year seeing the highest number of visitors since the volcano erupted. There were over 20,000 arrivals, although this was primarily due to an increase in the number of visiting cruise ships and had little measurable economic impact.

There is a costly overcapacity on both the aeroplanes and the ferry. According to the Government’s Sea and Air Access Strategy, there are only around 200 ferry passengers arriving per week outside of peak time, and just 125 air passengers. During peak season, which is the week before the St Patrick’s festival, the number of ferry passengers increases sevenfold, with another smaller increase before Christmas. This year, however, will be different. Montserrat is currently locked down to non-residents, and there will be no ferry.

Ending the ferry contract was a highly controversial decision, made more so by the way the announcement was made. It was the Captain of the Jaden Sun, Montserrat’s ferry for the past four years, who announced it. He said he received an email saying that the Government was discontinuing negotiations for a contract extension, and giving a month’s notice that the contract would end at the end of September. He said he was under the impression that the talks were ongoing and he hadn’t yet offered his final COVID-19 price, but the Government still walked away. It also remained silent for several days after the news broke.

But the ferry hasn’t been running, apart from the occasional cargo trip, and it has mostly been anchored in Little Bay. It is costing over EC$5m of FCDO money per year, plus withholding tax, plus the cost of the ports in Montserrat and Antigua, and the fuel. It is not a cheap undertaking, and despite pressure from DFID to reduce the access subsidy in the past, the costs have been rising. Montserrat has let a one-year ferry contract seven times now, to two different ferry companies, while it works out its ultimate long-term access configuration.

There had never been any suggestion before the decision was made, that the Government was considering removing ferry access. The suddenness of the decision has allowed the opposition to accuse it of making a panic decision to close a gap in its revenue budget. Also, to have not considered the economic impact. It has also kick-started a local debate about whether the ferry should ever come back, given that for the same level of subsidy it should be possible to replace the Islander aircraft. The Government and Opposition have both declared that they want the ferry to run and that they also want the bigger planes, specifically Twin Otters. But which do they get first and will they then have enough money left for the other?

Many things make this a wicked issue. A pyroclastic flow destroyed Montserrat’s original airport and left the island dependent on an ad hoc mix of helicopters and sea vessels. The business case for the new airport, which has a far shorter runway than its predecessor, said the aim was to “eliminate” the need for a ferry subsidy altogether. The British Government withdrew the support to the ferry but later had to reinstate it. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact said later that DFID hadn’t done the work with the local community to gauge what the impact of removing the ferry would be on passenger behaviour. The airport opened with an operational Twin Otter service provided by Winair, but the number of visitors to the island reduced. The restored ferry subsidy has doubled over the last ten years and the Twin Otter service no longer operates.

So, the model that many people in Montserrat would like, with the large ferry subsidy transferred to the airline services to enable the Britten-Norman Islanders to be replaced, has arguably already failed in DFID’s eyes. This is why they still subsidise a ferry. As stated above, visitors mainly come to Montserrat for the festivals. They are predominantly returning Montserratians, and the spike in passenger numbers always relates primarily to ferry use.

DFID has been trying to claw back this subsidy for some time and has been encouraging the Government of Montserrat to develop a coherent Access Strategy. It has funded several consultancies over the past decade to help with this. The airlines are now subsidised too, and the airport makes a loss. During the past ten years, successive Montserrat Governments have announced several different approaches: That they plan to let a long-term contract, or a short-term contract, or have a ferry purpose-built, that they want to purchase a ferry, or not have a ferry at all. There is no consensus on island about this, which is simply split (not evenly) between the pro and anti-ferry camps, with both disliking the current arrangements for air travel.

But it looks like Montserrat could be without a ferry for a very long time. Shortly before the announcement that the contract was to end, the Government placed a formal notice of an intention to buy a ferry on its website. The Premier has, however, now said that he will look again at that decision. One of the previous consultancies advised the Government that “further and deeper research needs to be directed firstly towards a better understanding of the local sea crossing environment” before deciding how to progress. So, nothing will happen soon, even if the purchase plans do go ahead. The consultant also suggested that the new breakwater (which is now an active project), should influence the ferry specification and will widen the ferry options available.

The Premier has not ruled out another short-term ferry contract if the need arises, but that will have a four-month lead-in, and as a consequence this will probably rule out a St Patrick’s visitor spike. He has also said that a new Twin Otter service is the priority. “It may well be in place for March,” he said in a recent radio broadcast, but that is unlikely. Both the previous two Governments tried to set up a Twin Otter service and failed. Even if he succeeds then a Twin Otter service, and no ferry, only takes the island back to where it was when the airport first opened. And that didn’t work. If it requires a hefty share of the overall access subsidy to make it work then the days of a regular passenger ferry may well be gone. FCDO money will only go so far.