Francis Portelli is owner and managing director of Virtu Group
For over 35 years, Virtu Ferries has provided essential fast passenger and vehicle services between Malta and Sicily.
Since 2019 the company has been operating two vessels on the route, the new Incat-built 110-metre catamarans Saint John Paul II, and Jean De La Valette, which was delivered nine years earlier by Austal Ships.
With an annual 1,400, 100-minute trips between the neighbouring islands, it is little wonder that Virtu Ferries is officially recognised as an essential service. And at no time was this more evident than during the Covid-19 pandemic, when commercial vehicle drivers travelling with Virtu were exempt from quarantine restrictions to keep Malta supplied with essential goods.
Virtu’s sea link allows Malta to take advantage of the economy of scale of the European Union’s single market, which has a population of over 450 million.
“To put things in perspective, the island state of Malta, a member of the EU, has a population of just over 500,000,” says Francis Portelli, owner and managing director of Virtu Group. “Malta’s closest neighbour, 60 nautical miles to the north, is Sicily which has a population of five million. Sicily is separated from Italy by the Strait of Messina and is, in practical terms, part of mainland Europe.”
“This is Virtu’s guiding vision, hence the current deployment of the two vessels on the Malta-Sicily route and our foresight to previously deploy our, first and much smaller passenger/car fast ferry, San Gwann, in 2001, in anticipation of Malta joining the EU in 2004,” says Portelli.
Malta’s insularity is a major disadvantage for the island’s industrial development, and these challenges are recognised at European Union level. Virtu’s contribution in this field is to provide urgent deliveries of essential items from the much larger market to the north. “Several industries depend on a scheduled daily fast-ferry service for the importation of these essential products,” says Portelli. “To mention just two, the island has a thriving pharmaceutical industry that requires urgent deliveries on a regular basis, the same can be said of the up-and-coming aviation maintenance industry. Also worth mentioning is the fact that a good number of Sicilians provide Malta with skilled labour generally and also find a prominent place in the tourist industry, a major pillar of the local economy.”
A more recent service, with a strong socioeconomic input, commenced against all odds in 2021 despite the Covid pandemic. It provides commuters with a fast-ferry service between Malta’s capital city Valletta and Gozo, the other main island in the Maltese Archipelago.
The vessels deployed on this service are San Frangisk, a 317-passenger ferry, and the new Gozo Express with capacity for 322 passengers. This too is an officially designated essential service.
There are other areas under the Virtu Group banner. “We have Venezia Lines, a wholly owned subsidiary, which since 2001 has run a sessional fast-ferry passenger service between Venice and four Adriatic ports in Croatia and Slovenia every April to October,” he says. “San Pawl, a sister vessel of San Frangisk, is on this route. “The company’s other fast ferry, Maria Dolores, is on charter between Tarifa, Spain and Tangier Ville, Morocco.”
For Portelli, post-Covid recovery is an immediate priority. The tourism industry is experiencing a boom, and this applies to Malta and Sicily to the same extent as it does to other tourist destinations. Virtu is benefitting from this upsurge. “We are experiencing a healthy increase in travel between Malta and Sicily,” says Portelli. “The Malta – Sicily route is the company’s core business and consequently will continue to be given the attention it deserves, in terms of passenger travel, cargo and innovation.”
Virtu will also continue to update its environmental policy. “Saint John Paul II, the company’s most recent build, is certified by classification society DNV as complying with both International Maritime Organization’s Fuel Oil Data Collection System, and the European Union MRV Regulation (Regulation (EU) 2015/757 on the monitoring, reporting and verification of carbon dioxide emissions from maritime transport,” says Portelli. “Virtu is actively looking at developments in ship electric propulsion systems with a view to employing these at the appropriate time.”
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.