Cyprus' Flag Administration Steps Up to Solve Crew Change Problems
During the COVID-19 crisis, Cyprus' flag registry has been deeply involved in helping shipowners to resolve the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic. In addition to providing new flexibility and financial relief for its customers, the Shipping Deputy Ministry of Cyprus has been helping the maritime community at large with the thorny problem of repatriation and crew change. In a recent exchange, The Maritime Executive spoke with outgoing Deputy Shipping Minister Natasa Pilides about her agency's efforts to keep shipping moving.
[Note: Effective July 10, Pilides has taken up a new post as Cyprus' Minister of Energy, Commerce and Industry.]
MarEx: How has the Cyprus registry helped shipowners to keep running despite the COVID-19 shutdown?
Given the crisis and the overall difficulty of the situation, we have tried as hard as we can to avoid any disruption for our customers. I think that was achieved from the logistical side, but the impact of the downturn on some firms' finances are unfortunately inevitable, and we are trying help with that as well.
There are several financial measures that we have put in place specifically for shipping, like an extension for the tonnage tax and the annual maintenance fee that shipowners pay to the registry. The government of Cyprus has also enacted financial support measures for all Cypriot companies, including loan interest deferrals and payroll cost support for firms affected by the COVID-19 downturn, so we're hoping that we can provide help on the financial side as well for companies operating here.
For crew changes, we've done quite a lot of work, because that was one of the main concerns of the industry. In Cyprus, we've had measures in place for doing crew changes on a case-by-case basis since April. But then in the beginning of May, we introduced a specific protocol for ships to conduct crew changes in Cyprus. And that's actually been quite popular - we've had so many requests and we've completed so many crew changes in the past few months.
Now we are easing those measures, and depending upon the ship's details and voyage history, the crew change procedure can go forward without many special approvals. Seafarers who are arriving from countries that are considered higher risk still have to take a COVID-19 test. If they are leaving a vessel, they don't need a test - they just go to the airport and fly out for their destination.
It is still a little complex, of course, but we're doing our best to relieve people of the restrictions in a phased way so that we can maintain safety and ensure travel access for seafarers. It has worked out well, because we haven't had any positive cases at all in the crew changes we've done so far. The remaining challenge is in getting people through to their final destination, as many countries still have a lot of restrictive measures in place. Quite often this results in flight cancellations.
MarEx: Is that something that the Cyprus Registry has been assisting with as well?
Yes, there's quite a lot of work that goes it - liaising with embassies, resolving foreign visa problems and in some cases even arranging specific flights for specific destinations. In Cyprus, we don't have any visa requirements for seafarers - they have always been covered by a special exception - but obviously there are countries that do require visas and the situation is complex.
We've provided this assistance both for the owners of Cyprus-flagged vessels and for shipping companies that we haven't collaborated with before. It's good that we've been able to work with companies from different parts of the world to help seafarers get home.
MarEx: How are you using technology to solve the challenges of the shutdown?
Remote audits are a possibility, and we've been working closely with class societies on this for a while. We've also been working on a port state control system with a Cyprus-based technology company to give our inspectors a way to do part of the work remotely before going on board a vessel.
In terms of our services, certificates are all verifiable online, and we have an online submission system for tonnage tax administration. We also have an online seafarer management system, which we've extended over the past few years with features that allow seafarers to engage with companies.
Cyprus is also making broader investments in maritime technology, like the new Cyprus Marine and Maritime Institute (CMMI). The idea is to join Cypriot researchers with partners from abroad, like the University of Southampton and MIT. The institute will bring research and academia closer to the private sector in order to work on future technology, like autonomous navigation and clean propulsion.
MarEx: COVID-19 makes predictions difficult, but what are your thoughts on the registry's outlook?
In 2019 we had record growth in ship management revenue in Cyprus, so the cluster as a whole has been growing, not just the registry. We expect these numbers to drop in 2020 due to the downturn, and we do expect to see scrapping activity and deferred deliveries, but it remains to be seen what the full effects of the pandemic will be.
The COVID crisis was a big test for our administration, and I'm glad that we were able to keep serving our ships and our companies. The outbreak encouraged us to be as proactive as possible, and we will continue to do that after the crisis has passed.
This article is sponsored by Cyprus Maritime. For more information on Cyprus' flag registry, please visit http://www.shipping.gov.cy/.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.