Ferry tales – Managing the Hulhumalé commute

It was 23:30, a large number of people were gathered outside Hulhumalé ferry terminal in Malé, the kind of crowd that usually gathers around a crime scene. But no crime was committed there – no police lines visible.

The people were gathering there to board the ferry to Hulhumalé – an extension of Malé City separated by sea, one of the greater Malé islands. Ferry service staff in blue uniforms were guarding the entrance to three tightly packed terminal waiting areas, as those outside anxiously awaited news of an extra ferry that might shorten the otherwise two-hour wait.

Adam Humam, a tour guide who lives in Hulhumalé hears nothing but complains about the ferry service:

“Look at this ferry, this thing is like a sauna most of the time. One will need to take a shower after traveling on this. Just look at how they have arranged the seats, we have to sit so tightly packed” Humam said, leaning away from the chair to avoid bumping into the next passenger.

The ferry concerned was an average wooden Dhoni, furnished with ten rows of plastic chairs screwed to the floor. The gangway led to two rows of motorbikes at the rear of the boat. Most windows on both sides were shut by the people adjacent, to shelter from occasional splashes of water. A few travellers stood at the back of the ferry – unable to find a seat. The smell was a mix of sea, old wood, and bodily odors.

With few exceptions, almost everyone who were interviewed about the 20 minute ferry service was unhappy with the service. The conditions of the ferry, the terminal and timings – it was all unsatisfactory for most questioned. Just a few long- time residents of Hulhumalé recalled the ferry services having improved significantly in the past decade.

Hulhumalé – a reclaimed landmass measuring 2 square kilometers off the north-east coast of Malé City – is home to an estimated 20,000 people. First settled in May 2004 with just one thousand people, the population of Hulhumalé is expected to double to 60,000 by 2020. The ferry service, operated by the Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC), is clearly finding it hard to cater to Hulhumalé’s population boom.

The MTCC has often said the ferry operation is not profitable at current rates, though Malé City Mayor Maizan Ali ‘Alibe’ Manik says that company can manage by investing in lands provided for them to subsidise the service. The Housing Development Corporation (HDC) – the government owned corporation mandated with the development and management of Hulhumalé – remains uninvolved in the MTCC’s operations. The transport authority, however, does have a mandate to monitor and regulate all ferry services in the country.

How is the service?

“What can I say? My wife and I moved to Hulhumalé three years back, and riding this ferry to and fro every day has been nothing but a pain. I developed a pilonidal sinus, and the doctor says it is sitting for such a long time and the terrible vibrations these boats give” said a young man in his late twenties.

Another couple who moved to Hulhumalé very recently had a different complaint, fearing the procedure of getting their motor bike on to the ferry – riding over a metal sheet placed against the ferry – could damage it over time.

Leevan Shareef, a vocal critic of the Hulhumalé ferry service on Twitter, sometimes has to spend two hours commuting between Hulhumalé and Malé. The MTCC does not increase ferry services during busy days – such as when political rallies are held in Malé – or on Friday evening, when a lot of people visit Hulhumalé, he complained.

“We complain to the ferry crew or staff at the counter, they will always say the issue will be brought to the attention of superiors. But there is no news of these superiors ever,” he said.

Mahdi Shahid, Deputy Principal of Lalé Youth International School, was among the first people to use the ferry service. His view was that the ferries have improved in the past ten years.

“Looking back, I would say it has actually improved a lot. Back then the ferry docked at the far north of the island, there were no trees, there was nothing over there. And we had to walk all the way from there to the school. It was a very small ferry then, but now the ferries are bigger and they travel more frequently,” Shahid explained.

“I think the current service would be okay, if the population wasn’t increasing so rapidly. but with the current population growth I think there should be an increase in number of ferries now. What I’m looking for is getting on the ferry and leaving without having to wait there for so long,” he added.

Currently the ferries operate between 05:30am and 02:30am, with eighty-two rounds between the two islands every day except for Fridays when ferries services are interrupted briefly for prayers.

Not profitable

Though the MTCC was unwilling to discuss the ferry service with the media, some ferry crew and staff noted that there were many challenges facing the company.

One such issue was that of Malé harbor, which they noted did not allow several ferries to operate simultaneously. “Sometimes we have to wait five minutes outside the harbor entrance, waiting for other ferries including those leaving for Hulhulé [the airport island] to leave,” said one crew member.

Four months ago, ferryboat owners – who lease their boats to the MTCC – went on strike after a failure to receive payments. The MTCC blamed this on delays in receiving payments from various government projects undertaken in various parts of the country. The company has often reiterated that its operations are not profitable at current rates. Ferry rates have risen at least twice since operations began in 2004, though other attempts to increase prices have been met with protests from Hulhumalé residents, usually ending with interventions from the city council and HDC.

In 2012, transport services in the Malé region contributed to thirteen percent of the MTCC’s operating profits, however the net loss in this sector has been gradually increasing over the past five years. The loss for transport services in the Male’ region in 2012 was reported to be MVR15.69 million (US$1 million).

Finding a solution

While accepting there are challenges in providing this service, Malé City Mayor “Maizan” Ali Manik (Alibe) said that a lack of profitability should not result in a bad service or higher fares.

“They always say they are operating ferries at loss. Yes, but services should be provided even at loss. All services provided by the state cannot be for profit,” Alibe said.

The MTCC could turn this around if they would invest in lands provided to them to subsidise these services, said the mayor. The ferry terminal land in both Malé and nearby Villingili islands were given to MTCC free of charge, and the plot for Hulhumalé terminal was given at ‘a very small rate’ according to HDC. The rent for businesses at ferry terminals – including the popular Sea House Cafe’ – goes to the MTCC.

“They can develop these land make profit in many ways” Alibe said, assuring that the city council was ready to help the MTCC in any such ventures.

Alibe stated his belief that the ferry service is gradually improving, and that some of the ferries were now of a high standard. However, if the MTCC is unable to fulfil its promises to improve the services by themselves, a second party might have be brought in, said the mayor.

The Housing Development Corporation

The MTCC has been providing public ferry and bus services for the Hulhumalé community since its inception, under an understanding with the HDC, which is currently in the process of formulating a formal agreement between the two companies. The services were provided for nearly ten years without any formal agreement.

Highlighting the HDC’s role in the ferry service, Deputy Managing Director Mohamed Shahid said the corporation does not get involved in business operations of some services such as the ferry operation in Hulhuamalé.

“We share [with MTCC] information regarding the population here and we try to provide adequate facilities for [serving] that [population]… we know that due to resources limitations there are some issues in both ferry and bus service,” he said.

According to Shahid, a set of standards and timings for operating bus and ferry services have been prepared and shared with the MTCC. The regulatory authority for travel operations of all ferry services, however, is the Transport Authority which has developed its own guidelines.

HDC Deputy Director Abdulla Fayaz said they were also looking into issues with ferry services, and communicating with the MTCC to resolve concerns raised by the public: “We do conduct surveys and maintain statistics regarding customers…this information is also shared with MTCC.”


Despite the optimism expressed by both the HDC and the city council with regards to improving the quality of  services, many people who frequent these ferries remained sceptical.

The current government has joined the prior three administrations in pledging to connect Hulhumalé and Malé  with a bridge. The government is currently in the process of reviewing proposals to build this bridge. Until then, thousands of people continue to dream of a better ferry service.


Thimarafushi airport opens in Thaa atoll

Thaa Atoll’s Thimarafushi airport was officially opened this morning by President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan. The airport was developed by state-run Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC).

The airport was developed to provide an efficient means of transport to the people, Haveeru reports, although as the airport does not have a control tower flights will only land during the day.

Addressing a crowd at the inauguration ceremony, President Waheed emphasized that the airport would facilitate faster development within the atoll, in part by improving tourist accessibility.

The President noted that certain infrastructural development requirements must be fulfilled for the airport to be considered fully complete, reports Haveeru.

The airport development project was originally awarded to Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) in April 2012. MACL subcontracted the project to MTCC for MVR32 million ($2.8 million) the following month. Delays, allegedly due to financial constraints, fueled political tensions earlier this year.

The airport will be operated by Island Aviation, which runs the Maldives national airline Maldivian Air.


MTCC to resume harbour projects after obtaining construction materials

The Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) has announced the purchase of 18,000 tonnes of breakwater rocks required to complete the construction of five island harbours previously stalled due to a lack of the material, according to local media.

Sun Online has reported that the company had acquired the materials from a shipment previously imported to the country by Indian infrastructure group GMR for construction of a new terminal at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA). The airport development deal, signed during the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed, was declared void last November by the government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed.

A MTCC spokesperson told local media that the acquisition of breakwater rocks would allow the company to resume construction work on harbour projects for five islands.

These islands include Manadhoo in Noonu Atoll, Ungoofaaru in Raa Atoll, Komandoo in Shaviyani, Feeali in Faafu Atoll, while a harbour is also being constructed in Meemu Atoll

The 18,000 tonnes of special rocks are now being transported to the islands, with authorities estimating that there would be enough building material to begin work on four harbours, with a further acquisition of  breakwater rocks expected soon, according to Sun Online.

MTCC announced last month that it was suspending harbour construction on four of the islands as the remaining work required further supplies of reinforcement rock boulders or conglomerate.

On February 15 this year, the Indian government revoked a special quota afforded to the Maldives for the import of aggregate and river sand. The move led to a shortage in the supply of construction material and subsequent rising costs for construction companies.

The Indian government’s decision followed a diplomatic row with the Maldives following the current administration’s termination of the concession agreement with GMR to upgrade and develop INIA.

The government’s sudden eviction of the Indian investor did not however appear on a list of 11 grievances handed to all senior Maldivian reporters by the Indian High Commission in January.  The list instead included concerns such as discrimination against Indian expatriates and the confiscation of passports by Maldivian employers.


Police arrest five people during protest over 75 laari increase in Hulhumale’ bus fares

Police have confirmed that a total of five people were arrested during a protest on Hulhumale’ yesterday (June 14), held to raise concerns over an increase in the price of bus fares on the island.

Three males, one female and a minor remain in custody today after they were charged with offences including failing to obey instructions and breaking past police lines during the demonstration. Demonstrators reportedly highlighted a number of concerns, including a decision to raise the cost of tickets on the Hulhumale’ bus service from MVR 2.25 (US$0.15) to MVR 3 (US$0.19).

The protest, which began at 3:00pm yesterday afternoon and ended roughly three hours later, coincided with efforts by the Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) to introduce new larger buses on the island, Sun Online reported.

Ismail Fariq, an executive for MTCC’s Transport Department said today that the new buses represented an MVR 8.6 million (US$558,000) investment by the company in an effort to provide a “total improvement” in service for passengers by offering air conditioning and more seating.

“The existing buses that we have been using are almost broken down, but these new buses we hope will offer a new benchmark in public transportation services,” he said.

With the new buses coming into service yesterday, Fariq said that passengers would be able to use the buses for free until tomorrow, when the new MVR 3 fare would be implemented.

He said the increased fare was essential to cover the company’s investment in the new vehicles.

“This increase in quality comes with the change in price,” Fariq argued. “As a business we need a reasonable return on investment and I do not believe that 75 laari is a big change for these improvements.

Demonstrators opposed to the increase nonetheless yesterday gathered in the area of Hulhumale’ where the new bus service was scheduled to be introduced to voice their concerns. They also demanded improvements to the ferry boat service presently operating between Hulhumale’ and the capital, according to local media.

Improvements to the ferry service were a much more pressing consumer issue than the provision of air conditioned buses in Hulhumale’, the protesters said according to Sun Online.  The criticisms were first made after the state-owned MTCC purchased four new vehicles last month.

The company was quoted in local media at the time as claiming the news vehicles would allow it to increase the capacity of daily bus passengers on Hulhumale’ from 8,000 to 10,000 people, as well as expanding the number of services it offered on the island.

In January this year the MTCC announced it would begin charging a six percent Goods and Services Tax (GST) on all ferry and bus services that it operates as required by the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA).

The cost of a ticket for a single journey on the Hulhumale’ bus was as a result increased to MVR 2.12 at the time.


Four MTCC harbour projects stalled over lack of construction material

The Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) has suspended harbour projects on four islands over the lack of construction material.

The government-owned public company said in a press release today that construction has stalled in Noonu Manadhoo, Shaviyani Komandoo, Raa Ungoofaru and Faafu Feeali as the remaining work required reinforcement rock boulders or conglomerate.

“Continuing such large projects while conglomerate is not available from India has resulted in a more than 100 percent increase in the price of materials as well as many logistical difficulties,” the press release stated.

It added that the company won the bids for the harbour projects based on the prices of construction material available from India at the time.

“In the past three months, the company has tried in various ways to purchase aggregate. At the same time, the company is also working with all the institutions involved in this matter to speedily resolve this issue,” the press release concluded.

On February 15 this year, the Indian government revoked a special quota afforded to the Maldives for the import of aggregate and river sand. The move led to a shortage of the supply of construction material and subsequent rising costs for construction companies.

The Indian government’s decision followed a diplomatic row with Maldives over the current administration’s termination of a concession agreement with Indian infrastructure GMR to upgrade and develop the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).

In December last year, Indian authorities also tightened visa restrictions for providing medical visas to Maldivians, leading to people queuing outside the Indian High Commission to obtain visas to travel for medical treatment.

In some instances, local people complained of queuing for over 24 hours outside the High Commission’s building in Male’ to try and get a limited number of daily tokens.


MTCC records MVR 24.1 million profit for 2012

The Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) has made a MVR 24.1 million (US$1.5 million) profit for the year 2012.

The company’s records – according to local media – show that it made MVR 597 million (US$38.5 million) in sales last year and declared MVR 12 million (US$77,7201) as taxes.

Sun Online reported that in 2011, MTCC lost MVR 8.03 million (US$518,000) and failed to distribute dividends to its shareholders for that year.


Harbour construction project begins in Gemanafushi

The Maldives Transport and Construction Company (MTCC) has begun a 10-month harbour construction project on the island of Gemanafushi in Gaafu Alif Atoll.

The project aims to reconstruct a 304 metre long and 91 metre wide harbour in place of the old habour, which is in ruin and insufficient for use, local media reported.

President of Gemanafushi Council Asim Mohamed told local media that work on the project begun on January 24, adding that MTCC were given 10 months to complete the project.

Asim thanked president Waheed for starting the project soon after making a promise to do so on a recent visit to the island.

“When President Waheed visited this island a while ago, he promised that a new harbour would be constructed here. Within a short period of time, work on what will be one the best harbours in the Maldives has begun here.

“I thank President Waheed in my own name, as well as on behalf of the people of this island”, Asim was quoted as saying in Sun Online.


MTCC ferry and bus services to charge GST

Ferry and bus services operated by Maldives Transport and Construction Company (MTCC) will now charge GST in addition to the ticket price, local media has reported.

MTCC Transport Executive Ismail Fariq told Sun Online that the company is now required to collect GST as it is a registered company at Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA).

Under the new requirements, tickets to Hulhumale’ cost MVR 5.30 and a ticket to Vilimale’ is charged at MVR 3.18. Inter-atoll island-to-island ferry services charge MVR 21 and MVR 53 for a trip to Male’
. Hulhumale’ bus fees have also increased to MVR 2.12, according to local media.

“It is not that we have increased the prices of our services. We have just added the GST 6 percent to our services,” Fariq told local media. “As such, GST will be collected from ferries from Hulhumale’, Vilingili, Gulhee Falhu, Thilafushi and province ferries as well as Hulhumale’ bus services.”


Vessel sunk and five injured after two separate boat collisions in Male’

Three boats have been damaged and another vessel sunk following two separate collisions in Male’ over the last 24 hours, authorities have confirmed.

The Maldives Police Service (MPS) has reported that a total of five people had received minor injuries as a result of the two separate collisions that occurred in the capital on Wednesday (January 3).  The first of these collisions occurred near the city’s T-Jetty, while the second crash occurred at the airport ferry terminal area, according to police.

Both collisions involved ferries operated by Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC), which today announced that it would not be reviewing its current operations, instead favouring increased staff training.

MTCC Executive Ismail Fariq told Minivan News that despite the incidents, there had been no changes to the schedule of its services, with all ferry operations running as “normal”.

“As we understand, the MTCC captain controlling the Hulhumale’ ferry was acting in accordance to regulation. There was no fault on our side,” Fariq said in regard to the airport ferry terminal collision.  “The traffic between these two islands is extremely high, and there is only one entrance and exit to the Hulhule’ and Hulhumale’ terminal.”

Fariq said that while there have been no changes to operations since yesterday’s collision, the company would be conducting “ongoing” sessions of additional training for captains.

The extra training was started last month following another incident involving a speedboat service operated by the MTCC.

“We are also hoping to negotiate with the city council and other public bodies to try and have a different entry point for the terminals, although this will be a long term goal of ours,” added Fariq.

An official from MTCC told local newspaper Haveeru yesterday that one of the collisions occurred yesterday when an airport ferry “backed up” while the MTCC vessel was entering the harbour.

Police reported at the time that five passengers aboard the airport ferry had to be taken to hospital following the collision. Police Spokesperson Hassan Haneef told Minivan News today (January 3) that all of the five injured passengers had now been discharged from hospital.

According to police reports, the earlier incident involved a collision between an MTCC ferry travelling from Villingili and a cargo boat carrying goods called Mihiri, causing the latter to sink.

Police confirmed today that there had been no reported injuries and that investigations into the incident were “underway”.

Speaking about the incident, Fariq said he believed poor visibility had resulted in the collision, however the company is still waiting for an official report from the police.

“If you are on the ferry, it is very difficult to see what is going in and what is coming out of the jetty. Our Villingili ferry had come over to Male’ and was waiting to come in when it collided with the cargo boat.

“There wasn’t much damage to either vessel from where they struck, so we think that the cargo boat may have also hit the rocks causing it to sink,” Fariq alleged.

Last month, an MTCC express speedboat and another vessel belonging to the Bandos Island Resort and Spa property collided, leaving a Finnish tourist dead and nine other people injured.

The incident led to the temporary suspension of an express speedboat service between Hulhumale’ and Male’ operated by the Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC).

The services were restarted later the same month follow a review of guest safety procedures.