Following a public consultation and a review of options, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company has decided to retain its route between Belfast and Douglas in 2018.
Following successful berthing trials of both its vessels, the Company had been considering the advantages and disadvantages of relocating services to the Northern Irish port of Larne and ran a three-week survey to gather public views.
There were more than 3,000 responses to the online survey, run by a professional research company and promoted through the Steam Packet Company’s website and social media channels as well as being shared directly with customers who have used the Douglas-Belfast route.
While the idea of relocating to Larne received broad support as Belfast currently has some linkspan weight restrictions, the consultation also demonstrated many foot passengers appreciate the convenience of sailing into Belfast city centre.
Steam Packet Company Chief Executive Mark Woodward said: ‘It was clear from our consultation that while the facilities at Larne were an attraction that received wide support there were some respondents who expressed a preference for retaining Belfast as a destination, due to its location and nearby network of transportation to other parts of Ireland.
‘The Company has decided that for 2018 it will continue to operate to and from Belfast, but will seek further dialogue with Belfast Harbour authorities to improve the linkspan facilities to provide a service for the transportation of larger vehicles which can be taken on Manannan from other ports. If those upgrades cannot be undertaken it will make sense for the Isle of Man if we will look again at Larne to provide a service for larger vehicles.’
The survey also invited comments from respondents, and many raised questions about the regularity and scheduling of sailings to both Belfast and Dublin.
Mr Woodward said: ‘Under the terms of our existing agreement with the Isle of Man Government, known as the User Agreement, we are obliged to operate a minimum number of sailings between Douglas and Ireland even though these services are heavily loss making, but switching high volume Liverpool services to operate low demand Irish routes instead does not help develop the visitor economy.
‘We appreciate that the frequency and timing of Irish sailings is not always ideal, but we must schedule vessels to maximise traffic and have always maintained our loss-making service obligations.
‘Ultimately we have to respond to customer demand. We have been running Belfast and Dublin services for many years, and have previously tried operating additional services with more attractive schedules and discounted offer fares to grow the routes, but with limited response. There is no doubt that the demand for Heysham and Liverpool sailings is much greater.’
He added: ‘We are still keen to invest further in new vessels for the Isle of Man and increase capacity, which would be beneficial for the development of sea services but investment needs a long timeframe for a return.’
Bookings for sailings on all routes in 2018 open on October 16 and can be made online at www.steam-packet.com.
Image: MANANNAN. Copyright © Isle of Man Steam Packet company