The transport minister has come under fire after defending moves by the Scottish Government-owned ship and harbour owner Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited to send two key figures to a ferry conference cruise 'junket' on the Med in the midst of the nation's ferry fiasco.

CMAL has confirmed both CMAL chief executive Kevin Hobbs and its director of vessels Jim Anderson will go ahead with the trip on Monday - despite criticism over their involvement.

They are to head to Barcelona to check in on Monday for the three day jaunt at a cost of between £1800 and £2400 per person for two nights. A shared cabin costs between £3000 and £4000.

The Shippax Ferry Conference will be on board Cruise Barcelona, one of the largest of its kind that crosses the Mediterranean Sea and a flagship of the Naples-based shipping firm Grimaldi Lines.

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The conference is due to bring together between 450 and 500 delegates from more than 200 companies and between 50 and 60 ferry operators and promotional material states that it is a "guaranteed entertaining and fun event you will remember for a long time!"

Transport minister Kevin Stewart has defended the decision in the midst of the crisis of providing lifeline ferry services in Scotland with an ageing fleet saying that it could help to find second hand ferry opportunities to support CalMac's ageing fleet.

He responded to a complaint lodged by former justice secretary now East Lothian MP and Alba Party deputy leader Kenny MacAskill who told the transport minister: "With delays to the vessels lengthening and indeed their costs rising, I am writing to query why two senior CMAL officials are engaging on what frankly appears to me to be a junket."

The Herald: Kenny MacAskill

Jim Anderson is due to speak about the fleet renewal programme, while Mr Hobbs is due to take part in a panel debate on short-range operators.

It comes amidst a series of breakdowns of ferries owned by CMAL and operated by Scottish Government-owned CalMac while two long-delayed lifeline vessels being built by sister shipyard firm Ferguson Marine remain incomplete with costs quadrupling.

Mr Stewart said: "It is for CMAL to determine the most appropriate forums that it attends and given the international nature of shipping this will on occasion include overseas events.

"It may be helpful for me explain that Shippax is primarily a conference for owners of vessels and operators. Shippax is primarily a forum where links within the industry are maintained and also presents opportunities for attendees, such as CMAL, to share experiences and knowledge about the net zero agenda. It also leads to connections that can yield second hand vessel opportunities, as has been the case with the MV Loch Frisa which would not have been offered on an exclusive basis without the links made by CMAL at a corporate level."

The previous Ferguson Marine owner, tycoon Jim McColl who rescued the yard when it went bust in 2014, blamed repeated design changes by CMAL for the issues in building the vessels for operator CalMac, which is also publicly-owned. CMAL has blamed the shipyard firm.

It led to the financial implosion of Mr McColl's firm in August 2019 which was then nationalised by the Scottish Government.

CMAL has since awarded over £220m in contracts to build four ferries to Turkish shipyard firm Cemre Marin Endustri - who are one of the 50 paid-for sponsors and exhibitors at next week's conference. They are 'night cap' sponsors.

The Herald:

The Herald:

Mr MacAskill told the minister: "It is noticeable that Ferguson's are not one of the companies represented at the conference and that raises questions about just what the purpose of the attendance by Kevin Hobbs and Jim Anderson will be.

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"The priority for Scotland must surely be ensuring the renewal of the CalMac fleet and the construction work of the vessels staying in Scotland at Ferguson's yard.

"The fact that they are not present, but other foreign yard operators are, gives cause for concern."

Mr Stewart added: "I can confirm that there is regular, positive engagement with the Scottish Government from the senior management team at the shipyard and real strides have been taken into improving the performance and financial management of the shipyard. We understand that challenges remain at the shipyard, however we remain committed to supporting them in achieving a sustainable and secure future."

Mr MacAskill rejected the defence of the trip and said that CMAL should be "scuttled".

"The idea that a corporate booze cruise spewing fumes helps address the net zero agenda is false. As for acquiring ships there's a ready market online. Besides the need is now and emails and phone calls should long since have been made.

"CMAL has presided over a shambles, racked up costs and delivered nothing to hard pressed communities and even threaten a vital Scottish yard. They should be abolished and CalMac and communities allowed to decide what ships they want."

With a capacity of more than 2,500 passengers, the floating hotel hosting the conference features 411 air conditioned en-suite cabins and 70 luxury suites alongside a choice of restaurants and bars, a swimming pool and casino.

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Prices for delegates to the conference includes a single cabin, and a return trip from Barcelona to the Civitavecchia region of Rome. The fees for the conference state beer, wine, dinner drinks, a happy hour and night caps included as well as two breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

On board Cruise Barcelona

The conference details state: "To meet and discuss in combination with having a memorable and enjoyable time together with friends and colleagues in the industry is what the Shippax Ferry Conference is all about, while being on board a ferry ensures a familiar and close connection between all delegates. Educational and fun!"

CMAL confirmed that the trip will go ahead as planned.

A spokesman said: “CMAL is at the forefront of ferry decarbonisation research, and the Shippax Conference is an opportunity to share this knowledge with our counterparts in the global shipping industry, while also supporting efforts to source second hand tonnage for the Scottish ferry network.

“CMAL has a responsibility to engage with shipyards globally to ensure it is able to fulfil the delivery of up to 21 vessels in the next 10 years.”