The Colombo-Tuticorin passenger ferry service which was started in June has been suspended indefinitely amidst some confusion with officials of both countries giving different reasons.
The vessel, which left for the island capital on November 18 not having returned since. Sources in Sri Lanka have also mentioned that the halt may be due to low volume of business the vessel was doing.
The Ceylon Shipping Corporation, the general agent for the ferry service, was informed by the Indian counterpart Flamingo Liners Ltd that the Scotia Prince ferry service would be halted due to “technical difficulties,” a CSC official said.
However, CSC General Manager Sunil Obbodage said the ferry service was suspended because not many people were using it. The Scotia Prince ferry started operation following an agreement between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments last year. Flamingo Chief Executive Officer R.C. Thimaiah said the ferry service was suspended due to operational difficulties.
He also denied reports that there was an outstanding amount to be paid to the Sri Lankan fuel supplier and said they were clearing the outstanding credit facilities.However, the local fuel supplier has filed a case at the Colombo Commercial High Courts against Flamingo Liners.
Scotia Prince, the vessel with luxury facilities like casinos, restaurants and even duty-free facilities was launched from the VOC Port in Tuticorin by Union minister for shipping G K Vasan on June 13, this year. The bi-weekly service has been stopped abruptly without prior announcement, after having sailed for about five months.
This luxury liner was the first to be launched in this region. Even on the first day, it was mainly the port trust staff and their families who went on the maiden voyage. Though it has a capacity of 1044, port trust sources say that it has not carried more than 350 passengers even on certain peak days. Even the drive-in facility to take one’s vehicle was introduced in this ferry service in July. However, the numbers dwindled to about 150 passengers two weeks ago.
Initially, it was patronized by traders who took bulk cargo like saris and other goods for sale in Sri Lanka. These traders took with them workers, most of them migrants from other states to carry additional cargo, which is permitted multi-fold at a cheaper price when compared to airlines.
Meanwhile, when contacted, a port trust official said that the shipping services had not been stopped. “We came to know that there is some technical snag in the vessel and it is expected by Friday,” he said.
R Ashok Raj, a businessman from Tuticorin who made the trip one-and-a-half month ago said that it was not one of the most convenient modes of travel for a businessman like him.
“For instance, we checked in at 3pm at the VOC Port and were able to come out of the Colombo port only at 11am the next day, making it a very long and tiring journey. The customs’ service was also not up to the mark,” he said.
“The airfare from Chennai to Colombo is much cheaper and faster and nobody wants to waste time on travel these days,” he said adding that the ship though was very comfortable.
T Sethuraman another trader said that the ship is definitely meant for trade and business or fast travelling. “Crossing the Palk Strait is indeed an experience for holiday travelling and I don’t think much has been done for promoting it as a tourist attraction as it should be,” he said.
However, A Arun of E-Way Air Travels in Tuticorin told TOI that he learnt through some sources that the services had been stopped.
“To the best of my knowledge there was very poor patronage and the liner had not carried even half its capacity during the last five months,” he said.
Another travel agency in West Car Street in Tuticorin which has been booking the tickets for the ferry says that they had to cancel the tickets booked for next month and added that the passengers will be refunded. “We think the service is cancelled for this entire month and more,” said a worker.
Meanwhile, the online booking site www.flemingoliners.com displays the message “Coming Soon” flashing on its screen when an attempt is made to book a ticket.
This service was expected to have a good patronage from Sri Lankan refugees who want to go home as the problems have ceased in the island nation. With passengers allowed to carry a luggage capacity of 150kg per person, it would have helped them go back with everything. But, even patronage from these people was very limited, according to port trust sources.