By A. Tsimplakis
A "Turkish wave" of professional pleasure craft is again expected to target the foremost holiday destinations in the eastern Aegean this summer, amid a still fuzzy institutional framework in Greece regarding the sector and the prospect of a full liberalization.
The presence of large Turkish wooden craft drew the Greek coast guard's attention last season, as nearly 1,000 such vessels were used to conduct mini cruises between the various Greek isles and even the Asia Minor mainland and the islands. The vessels are larger than the ubiquitous "caiques", traditional fishing boats that have long plied the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and the Sea of Marmara. Such vessels are known by local mariners as goletas, (French goélette), wooden vessels powered by a diesel engine and sails, large enough to often host up to 20 passengers.
The issue, in fact, was the focus of a meeting at the shipping ministry in Piraeus this week, which was chaired by relevant minister Panayiotis Kouroumblis, with the presence of various sector representatives and tourism professionals.
Last season's safari by the Greek coast guard was due to two reasons: the first being that most of the specific Turkish-flagged vessels lacked Paris MOU safety standards for professional vessels. Another reason, according to sector officials, is that cruises were often conducted partially "off-the-books", with no VAT remittances paid.
The clampdown generated protests by Turkish authorities and reactions by Greek tourism professionals who hire the Turkish-flagged vessels.
According to the honorary president of the Hellenic Professional Yacht Owners Association (EPEST) and sector executive Giorgos Vernikos, Turkish owners subsequently withdrew their vessels from Greek waters.
Nevertheless, he and other market watchers who spoke with "N" said Turkish authorities studied the problem and came up with a way around the "safety standards" obstacle, telling owners to return whatever safety certificates they have to the Turkish state and instead change the designation of the vessels to the "primitive" category, which means they would not fall under the Paris MOU's domain.
At least two such Turkish vessels have recently approached a Greek island, with the shipping ministry now investigating where the change in the designation is legal, based on international standards.
On the strictly Greek side of the business end, sector officials continue to press the government to fully liberalize the market and to allow free competition in the yachting and pleasure craft sector.
For instance, EPEST wants to allow vessels with third country flags into the Greek market so they can carry out cruises and be hired, with the association's president, Antonis Stelliatos, saying Greece can attract another 5,000 top-of-the-line vessels, including mega yachts, with the benefits for the local economy being extremely lucrative.
Conversely, foreign-based leasing agents are lukewarm to the prospect of opening subsidiaries in Greece, weary of red-tape-laden Greek bureaucracy and affiliated extra taxes and fees they fear will be associated with the opening such liaison offices.
This position was echoed by AI Yacht Trade manager Gina Polemi, who said vessels on a foreign registry have agreed to pay VAT remittances for all lease contracts, however, the establishment of liaison offices in Greece will add taxes and cut from their bottom line. This position, however, was rejected by other participants at the meeting, who claimed that no other taxes or fees are involved.