TALLINN - The Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs announced Jan. 15 that a public tender for sea routes between the mainland and the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa had come up empty-handed, with all the bids by competing companies rejected.
The bids of transport operators Tiandra Shipping Limited, Vainaliinid OU, AS VLF, and the Tallink Group to take over transport operations from current operator Saaremaa Shipping Limited once its contract ends in October 2004 were found to contain errors in their offers and therefore were turned down without further inquiry.
"The companies qualify for the public tender, but their offers didn't meet different conditions as stipulated in the law," said price commission director Andres Tint.
According to him, the ministry asked companies bidding in the tender to provide a schedule of how many trips they will be able to make annually for the duration of the seven-year contract, as well as their proposed daily schedules for the year 2005.
When the math for the seven-year contract and the 2005 proposal didn't match up, the ministry was forced to deny further negotiations with any of the candidate companies.
"Their numbers just don't match up. By law we cannot hold more discussions with these companies. It is not possible to come to an agreement with them at the moment," said Tint.
"Maybe they don't think that accurate information is so important to give," he added.
The disappointing outcome has forced the ministry to begin another public tender for possible ferry operators to cover the Heltermaa - Rohukula connection (Hiiumaa) and the Kuivastu - Virtsu connection (Saaremaa).
The tender for the Soru - Triigi connection that allows passengers to travel from Saaremaa to Hiiumaa will remain open however, and the government said it was in negotiations with Tiandra Shipping and Zoulian Management.
The current ferry operator, Saaremaa Shipping, has been operating on these routes under a 10-year state contract that expires in October 2004. But the company said it did not intend to take part in the tenders since it was shifting its focus to new work abroad.
"We are looking for the possibility to go out of Estonia. We have had some experience working in the Faroe Islands, and the idea is to sail in Europe - Denmark, Germany, or even between Great Britain and France," said Tonis Rihvk, managing director of Saaremaa Shipping.
If those plans fall through, there is always the possibility of opening up a connection between Sweden and Estonia, or even Latvia and Estonia, said Rihvk.
Ivar Jogi, a member of Saaremaa Shipping's supervisory council, said that the company's board members did not like the conditions put forth by the ministry.
"The offer presents a big problem for our company because we do not have all the documents to participate at the moment, and the partners in the company feel the offer is very bad," said Jogi.
He also cited rough weather conditions in the area - including stormy seas and terrible ice conditions in winter, that make the English Channel a more appealing location for maritime transportation.
However, the Economic Affairs Ministry's Tint hinted that the publicity surrounding such a decision - published in all the local dailies - may be posturing on the part of Saaremaa Shipping rather than an echo of true commitment to working abroad.
"They say we have too many conditions, and that it's a bad tender - but I think that this idea that they will move to England or France may be just tactical," Tint said.
He expressed the ministry's hope that in the future the government could abandon the idea of employing private contractors and purchase its own ships for routes between the mainland and the islands, though he added that the ministry was presently short of money for such a purchase.
In the meantime, the ministry will move forward with planning the next public tender, though a start date has yet to be determined.
The island of Saaremaa is Estonia's second biggest tourist draw after the capital and receives 250,000 visitors annually - with 30 percent of visitors coming from Finland, Latvia, Germany and Great Britain.