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Achille Onorato: “More Sardinia in our future” / INTERVIEW

“It’s too early to have clear picture. Of course, tourism to and from Sardinia has also suffered from the recession that has affected the sector in Italy.”


THE GREAT exodus is over; summer is coming to an end; and companies have started to count their earnings. Not least the ferry companies. Achille Onorato, Vincenzo’s son and the managing director of Moby Lines, is heading up the group that combines Moby and Tirrenia: a fleet of over 30 ships, including the ferries of Toremar, the little Onorato cluster that serves to link Tuscany’s islands. Despite some indicators, there’s been no real recovery yet in economic terms.

The season is almost over: there have been more returns than departures. How did it go?

“It’s too early to have clear picture. Of course, tourism to and from Sardinia has also suffered from the recession that has affected the sector in Italy. The first analyses on the trend in ferries to and from the main tourist destinations, especially in Sardinia, showed a decrease - but we saw a clear recovery at the end of July and during August. But overall, the number of passengers to and from the islands is much lower and ‘less pecuniary’ compared to four or five years ago.”

Two historic Italian shipping companies are about to merge. What will change with the marriage between Moby and Tirrenia?

“From a strictly operational point of view, nothing. From a legal point of view, this is an important sign of attention to Sardinia - which will also benefit from this merger between Moby and Tirrenia due to significant tax revenues. Sardinia is increasingly at the centre of the Onorato group’s development plans. Moby and Tirrenia have and continue to invest in Sardinia in a synergistic way also in terms of territory development and in the massive effort to de-seasonalise tourism on the island. From this point of view, the ongoing effort to offer ever lower fares is the pillar of the group’s strategy.”

The group seems to be particularly active both in the renewal of the fleet and in the acquisition of strategic terminals: from the Porto Livorno 2000 to the interest in the new project for the relaunch of the port of Palermo, which was the work of Pasqualino Monti. What are your strategies?

“For Tirrenia, the time frames for the entry into service of the two ships being built in the German shipyard of Flensburg should be shortened. The ships are the “Alf Pollak” and the “Maria Grazia Onorato”, which will be the largest and most eco-sustainable RO-RO units in the Mediterranean. Both will be used on a strategic section of the Motorways of the Sea, Genoa-Livorno-Naples-Catania-Malta. In Sicily, the group has become the main player, acquiring significant market share, which until recently was actually controlled monopolistically by a single group. The key to this operation was the offer of ever lower fares, also seriously pursuing the objective of competitive fares and the sharing of strategies and therefore operational choices with all those small and medium road haulage companies that had in fact been excluded from the possibility of using the Motorways of the Sea. Within three years, two passenger ferries that are now under construction in China will be ready to enter service. These will be ferries for the Sardinia routes. On the island side, the group has decided to purchase three new tugboats to enhance its existing port fleet. The investments in Germany and China will not affect the companies’ liabilities, since they are being purchased by the family and will then be leased to the companies of the group at market prices. On the mainland, the Onorato group, as you mentioned, has joined the management of the Livorno 2000 terminal in the Tuscan port and has recently renewed its agreement for the management of Sinergest in Olbia.”

Speaking of Sardinia: the battle over territorial continuity is flaring up. Tirrenia won the tenders, but the competition is calling it a privilege that should no longer exist... “But there really is no battle to be fought here; it’s an existing contract with the company which is not even being challenged by the Region of Sardinia. Controversy is not part of our business strategy. We leave it to others, who operate in a marginally legal or quasi-legal way, to entrust their commercial strategies to methods of this type. I would remind you that territorial continuity is a right recognised by the State to citizens residing in Sardinia, and we are the operational arm through which this guarantee is put into practice by managing lines and ships on routes and in seasons that would not be profitable without State intervention, and which any operator would therefore abandon. The Onorato family and the group have a very special relationship with Sardinia. A relationship that will also lead us to invest heavily by way of employment.”

We come to employment: the battle over Italian sailors has ensured wide visibility...

“Well this certainly is a battle! And it was first led by my father, Vincenzo. The equation is simple and linear. With the 1998 Law on the International Register, the State guaranteed Italian shipowners the right not to pay taxes. In return, they would have to keep the Italian flag on their vessels and employ Italian sailors. This has not happened and many shipowners not only avoid taxes but double the benefits by using underpaid non-EC sailors. This is in the face of an Italian maritime labour market that is now reporting 50,000-60,000 unemployed Italian sailors. My father, and us also, we are fighting for an enforcement of the law. Our group employs 5,000 sailors, all of them Italian.”

What will you focus on in the medium to long term?

“We will focus on quality: the group has invested and continues to invest in ships and passenger services, on the one hand, and road hauliers, on the other. Quality is not and cannot be a mere slogan: it is also key to incentivising more and more significant tourist flows by transforming the ship from a simple transport means to the start of a holiday. And then there is the Baltic...”

What do you have in mind?

“Our Baltic initiative is not well known, not least because it is aimed primarily at Russian and Scandinavian customers. However, it has been a successful experience and sits between a high quality ferry service and a true cruise offering. The group also uses Italian seafarers on the Baltic and guarantees the application of the Italian contract to approximately 80 Russians. It is not ruled out that we will further strengthen this niche market which we have attacked with a