A ferry service announced in October 2015 that promised Shia pilgrims from Pakistan a secure route to the holy sites in Iran and Iraq has still not started. Governments on both sides have yet to give a green signal to the project.
The move came after the land route to Iran was suspended in 2014 as the Pakistan military fought with militants in the troubled Balochistan province.
Six months after the plans to launch the ferry service were finalised, Brig (retd) Rashid Siddiqi, Executive Director Administration, Pakistan National Shipping Corporation, says there are “lose ends in the plan which need to be tightened. As soon as we get a thumbs-up from the government, we will take 42 days to launch the service,” he says.
The plan includes two ferry services to be operated between Karachi- Gwadar-Iran with a capacity of 400 to 600 passengers. The 18-hour journey will be costlier than the road trip but cheaper than travel by air. Each passenger will be allowed to carry 100 kgs with him as luggage. The ferry is expected to be a more secure way of traveling.
In January this year, local newspapers reported that the ferry service was about to start in March. However, Siddiqi claims that details are still to be finalized, such as which port in Iran should the ferry opt for: Chahbahar or Bander Abbas. “Our teams have visited both ports and are figuring out which would be best suited for the ferries.”
The PNSC advertised in newspapers last week, asking for bids for sea vessels. “We are still deciding the kind of vessel we should use. Whether it should be a cruise, which is slower but more comfortable, or a catamaran which is faster but moves a lot in the rough sea,” he says.
“There are also other issues which need to be sorted out on the diplomatic level like will pilgrims get visa on arrival or will they have to apply to the embassy prior departure,” he informs.
Meanwhile members of the Shia community are waiting desperately for the ferry service to begin as travel by air is expensive.
Narjis Fatima, who returned from a visit to Karbala this year, says, “I could only manage to visit Karbala and no other holy sites in Iran as visiting both countries would have doubled our travel budget. If the ferry service begins I will be the first one to buy a ticket.”