The Mediterranean’s ports are posting strong numbers but capacity issues and changing trade patterns could alter growth prospects for some ports in the future.

The Mediterranean region’s ports are some of the most active in the world comprising trade lanes connecting the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. It’s estimated that over 20% of the world’s seaborne traffic passes annually through the Straits of Gibraltar. Arguably, this makes the nine-mile wide waterway at the western end of the Mediterranean, the most heavily trafficked straits on Earth. At the southeastern end of the Mediterranean Sea lies the 120-mile long Suez Canal – perhaps the singularly most important man-made waterway in the world. Annually the canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, handles over 17,500 vessels accounting for over 900 million tons of cargo. In between these iconic chokepoints lies a vast network of ports and trade routes linking more economies than any other sea region.

The Suez Canal is a critical waterway to energy shipments, bulk and containerships.
The Suez Canal is a critical waterway to energy shipments, bulk and containerships.

Ports like the Spanish ports of Valencia, and Algeciras, the Tanger-Med in Morocco, Malta’s Marsaxlokk along with the Egyptian ports like Damietta, Port Said and Alexandria are transshipment hubs not only for freight moving throughout the greater Mediterranean region but also act as a connector to ports as distant as the Americas or the Far East.

Western Mediterranean Ports

The two Western Mediterranean Spanish ports of Algeciras and Valencia are both 4 million plus TEU (see chart on page 14) transshipment hubs. Valencia’s throughput in 2017 of 4.8 million TEU was up over the 2016 total of 4.7 million. Valencia’s short-term target is hitting the 5 million TEU mark in 2018, a goal that looks very achievable. Through August, the port had handled 3,331,151 TEU compared to 3,168,668 TEU in 2017. The 5.13% increase puts them on a pace to eclipse the 5 million mark. Valencia is trying to be one of the ‘last’ three ports for ocean carriers to and from Europe – one of the essential transshipment hubs tallying around 2.6 million TEU in transshipment business. In 2017 the transshipment business helped Valencia pass Algeciras as the largest Spanish container port.

Conversely, Algeciras tallied 4.4 million TEU in 2017 down from 4.8 million in 2016, although the dip in container throughput is likely to be reversed this year. In the first half of 2018, container throughput at the Juan Carlos I and Isla Verde Exterior terminals were up 8.4% year-on-year increase (2.3 million TEU) to reach 30 million tons. Imports and exports between Algeciras and Tangier Med, Morocco, increased by 6.5% year-on-year.

Perhaps the most intriguing port in the Western Med is Tanger-Med 1, located in Morocco on the south side of the Straits of Gibraltar. The port, which bills itself as “The New Mediterranean Strategic Hub” is something of a work in progress as the number 1 implies. The port, less than a decade old in 2017, handled 3,312,409 TEU, an astounding 11% above estimated capacity and enough to place it in the top fifty container ports in the world and the largest on the African continent. The port is constructing Tanger-Med 2 for opening in 2019, which will add an additional 6 million TEU to the current capacity. The goal is to place the African hub port into the top 20 container ports in the world.

European Mediterranean Ports

The Northern Mediterranean ports like Spain’s Barcelona, France’s Marseille or the Italian ports of Genoa and La Spezia are integrated into the European hinterland through rail and road networks. The ports have seen rising totals and 2018 looks to be even better. In the case of Barcelona, the port’s volume increased a hefty 32.3% from 2016 to 2017, going from 2,243,584 TEU to 2,968,757 TEU. The numbers are trending for an even bigger year in 2018. Through August, the port has tallied 2,242,139 compared to 1,968,540 in 2017, a 13.9% increase.

The Port of La Spezia (see Peter Buxbaum AJOT article 9/24/2018, page 8, La Spezia – Turning the trade map of Europe upside down) is making a strong push to extend the port’s cargo catchment zone deep into Europe. In 2017 La Spezia posted 1,473,571 TEU as compared to 1,272,425 TEU in 2016. What makes the port so unique is the fact that while Asia is the biggest trade partner at nearly 45%, the Port of New York/New Jersey is the largest single port partner at 25%. The port is adding two million TEU in capacity with 50% of the traffic expected to be handled by rail service.

The Port of Genoa, which is billed as the gateway to Italy’s industrialized north, posted just over 2.6 million TEU in 2017, marginally ahead of 2016. Through August the Port is running just ahead of last year 1,797,659 TEU to 1,768,581 TEU. In September, Genoa received a shipment of new electric cranes at Voltri Terminal Europa (VTE) to replace the diesel-powered yard cranes. An order was placed for 21 RMGs (rail-mounted gantry) cranes, the first electric cranes to be deployed in the Ports of Genoa, as part of PSA Voltri-Pra’s Euro 40 million-investment program.

The port suffered a setback in August with the collapse of the Morandi Bridge, which shut down three rail lines to the port. On October 4th two of the rail lines were reopened. At this writing work is still underway restoring complete service. The French port of Marseille, “Gateway for Southern Europe,” is also a competitor for Continental traffic. In 2017 the Port of Marseille handled 1,362,204 TEU as compared with 1,251,744 in 2016. And the port seems poised to cross the 1.4 million TEU mark in 2018. In 2017 the Port developed and added 55 hectares of logistics space. There is another 101 hectares of dedicated logistics space scheduled for development in 2018.

Two Transshipment Hubs: Marsaxlokk and Gioa Tauro

The Mediterranean has nine major transshipment hubs but two stand out because of their central location, the island of Malta’s Marsaxlokk port and Gioa Tauro in Southern Italy.

There is arguably no greater transshipment port in pan-Europe than Malta’s Marsaxlokk. In 2017 the Port’s throughput was 3,150,000 slightly up on the 3,080,000 recorded in 2016. A study by the Dutch maritime consultancy firm Dynamar estimated that 95% of Marsaxlokk’s (Malta Freeport) throughput was transshipment. Only the ports of Singapore and Freeport in the Bahamas ranked a higher share of their throughput as transshipment. Twenty mainline services call at the port.

The port is equipped to handle 20,000 TEU ships and is reportedly operating at full capacity. The port is investing in adding upwards to 4.5 million in new capacity – a majority of the planned investment is in squaring off Terminal Two with a significant investment in new equipment.

Like Malta, Gioa Tauro is a key transshipment port for liner services in the Mediterranean. Unlike the island of Malta, Gioa Tauro is linked to the European hinterland via rail and road services running through Italy. In 2017 the Port’s throughput was 2,488,570 TEU, well down on the 2016 tally of 2,797,070 TEU. Improvements to the Medcenter Container Terminal began in October. The Euro 14 million project at the southbound quay and yard of Medcenter Container Terminal will involve over 130,000 sq./m of the terminal area, including renovations to 60,000 sq./m of transit areas, 70,000 sq./m of quay surface and a 12-meter widening of the quay’s vehicle transit area.

Suez Canal Ports

The Suez Canal is arguably the world’s most important manmade waterway. The volume of traffic – 17,500 plus ships annually – and scope of these transits make the Suez Canal a critical waterway to energy shipments, bulk and of course, containerships. Containerships account just over 31% of the traffic and over 55% of the tonnage going through the Canal according to recent data. In 2017 boxships accounted for over 32% of the transits and 57% of the tonnage moving through the Canal.

In August 2015, Egypt inaugurated a new Suez Canal with expanded capacity. The goals of the expansion were to increase daily transits to 97-ships by 2023 and in turn boost revenues to $13 billion by 2024. While the project is largely complete, the Canal is only just beginning to see improved revenues. In 2015 the revenues were $5.175 billion, followed by $5 billion in 2016 and $5.3 billion last year.

The expansion of the Suez Canal has also supported the Egyptian ports at the Mediterranean entrance. Port Said in 2017 handled 2,989,897 TEU, while Alexandria is estimated to top 1,700,000 TEU and Damietta posted 1,131,226 TEU. Since nearly all the cargo is related to the Canal traffic, so go the Suez Canal, so go the Suez ports.

Port investment in North Egypt is closely tied to expanding Canal traffic.

In September, China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) began the main phase of the construction of a new terminal basin in Sokhna Port, south of the Suez Canal in northeast Egypt. DP World is the main investor and the container operator in the port. Sokhna Port is located within the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZone), a main economic region in Egypt whose development is one of the country’s mega projects to attract foreign investments for further economic growth.