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Meanwhile, islands struggle without transportation

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Dec. 4, 2009) – In Tonga, hopes for an interim inter-island ferry to replace the sunken MV Princess Ashika before Christmas are fading, as negotiations continue with prospective donors.

[PIR editor’s note: MV Princess Ashika sank on August 5, 2009 after certified as being "sea worthy". The accident killed over 70 people during an inter-island trip in Tonga. See related story.]

The Acting Secretary for Transport Sione 'Akau'ola said yesterday, December 2, that it was the hope of the Tonga government and NZAID for an interim ferry to be in operation before Christmas. "But nothing has been disclosed at this stage and negotiations are still going on," he said.

The disruption to the ferry service following the sinking of Princess Ashika, left the Shipping Corporation of Polynesian Ltd without a vessel. The Ashika was intended to replace the old MV Olovaha while a new ferry was being built in Japan.

However, the vessel being built in Japan will not be ready to begin operation for at least another year.

The current inter-island ferry service is left in the hands of private operators. The Tongatapu-'Eua service is operated by Uata Shipping and Tofa Ramsay Shipping. The service between Tongatapu and the northern group of Ha'apai and Vava'u is serviced by the Uata Shipping with the MV Pulupaki.

The areas hardest-hit by this disrupted ferry service are the remote Niuafo'ou and Niuatoputapu islands in the north of Tonga. Niuatoputapu is still recovering following the tsunami at the end of September, which claimed nine lives and destroyed homes, and reconstruction has been made more difficult because there is no reliable ferry service.

The problem of a ferry service to the Niuas is compounded by their distance from Tongatapu and with a small population the service in the past has been subsidized by government.

Following the sinking of the Princess Ashika, the safety standards of the ferry service have come under scrutiny and private operators will have to meet a higher standard.

Sione 'Akau'ola said that they require an interim ferry to service all the northern groups of islands, the Niuas, Vava'u, and Ha'apai.

Meanwhile the NZAID office in Nuku'alofa stated that nothing had been confirmed at this stage and negotiation was on-going.

Earlier on September 10, a public submission that called for proposals to offer the interim ferry service for Tonga closed with interest expressed from international operators in the Pacific, New Zealand and Europe. An assessment panel looked at the different submissions to decide on the most appropriate provider.

Under the tender process, the vessel type sought after must have a Ro-Ro with bow or stern ramp and should accommodate 400 passengers both floor and day seating. The vessel requires a cargo capacity of approximately 250sq m and 4.55m free height with 100-400 tons of cargo deadweight.

But in October it was confirmed by the Ministry Transport that there was no suitable vessel that met the requirements of the Government of Tonga.

Meanwhile, the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia Ltd said today, an interim ferry is greatly needed now since it's the school holidays and Christmas.

"This is a busy time of the year for inter-island travelers who may want to return home for Christmas or visit families but we have no ferry," said Acting SCP CEO Tali'ofa Kolopeaua.

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