11 Apr Shipping agents ask for urgent streamlining of regulations from Ministry of Defence to facilitate crew change operations
The Ministry of Health has published the new health guidelines that became effective from 1 March clearly stating the arrival procedure travellers should follow based on their COVID-19 vaccination category (fully, partially or non) to enter the country from air and seaports. This document clearly allows seafarers to arrive and depart similar to that of a tourist if they are fully vaccinated.
The shipping agents have traditionally performed all the logistics of embarking/ disembarking and transporting the seafarers and also signing a bond on their behalf with the Department of Immigration and Emigration. However, Shipping Agents, as service providers in Sri Lanka are unable to market this service to foreign shipowners due to Ministry of Defence overruling the regulations and procedures set out by the Ministry of Health by making it mandatory for Shipping Agents to perform these seafarer transfers through Avant Garde Maritime Services at an exorbitant cost to the Shipowners.
Although the guidelines exempt fully vaccinated travellers from PCR requirements, Sri Lanka Navy and Ministry of Defence are still insisting on PCR requirements for seafarers arriving via seaports thus forcing Shipping Agents to use isolation centres operated by Avant Garde at $ 425 a night. Plus $ 100 per day from the second day onwards. This has made Sri Lanka extremely uncompetitive in the region for crew change operations and deprived the shipping community from earning valuable foreign exchange.
Therefore, it is an urgent appeal by the shipping community for the Ministry of Defence to align with the Ministry of Health regulations and exempt seafarers from the PCR tests and isolation centre requirements and restore the operations to the pre-COVID era.
Strategic development of the shipping Industry is key to the overall development of any country and a key forex earner for an economy. Sri Lanka, due to its geographical location, sits in a strategic location to capitalise on the opportunity as a crew change hub, where ships can embark and disembark crew when they complete their contract time on board. This service traditionally performed by the Shipping Agents in Sri Lanka has brought about vital foreign exchange contributing to Sri Lankan economy especially in these most challenging times.
Sri Lanka has the opportunity to market itself not only as a location to conduct crew changes but also as a location with world-class sourcing centre for local seafarers with the opportunity to fulfil their potential, and even for foreign nationals to obtain certification here. Along with crew exchanges, sea marshal operations in Sri Lanka, shipowners also look to consolidate the husbandry services such as ship supplies, bunkering, water, garbage removal, crewing, agency services etc. The pandemic brought about its own unique challenges in performing crew change operations given the frequently changing health authority guidelines pertaining to the related logistics. After successive changes in the regulations pertaining to conducting crew changes in line with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Defence from transporting seafarers under military escorting to mandatory isolation centres when tourists were free to fly into the country free from such hassles, it showed a continuous discrimination towards seafarers with no reasonable explanation to be given to shipowners.
Therefore, competitive rates and ease of doing crew changes in Sri Lanka in comparison to other Ports in the region is essential in developing hub status for such services and supporting the entire growth of the shipping industry in Sri Lanka. It is always important for the Government authorities to obtain inputs from those engaged in the industry before establishing procedures which could in certain be totally detrimental for sustainability and growth of an industry like shipping which has been one of the main foreign exchange earners for the country. Further, the importance of all Government Ministries being aligned to the same regulations is also vital for the smooth functioning of the industry and confidence among international customers.