by archibald van willigenburg
Published on: Feb 9, 2004
Type: Opinions

With help of my father I've done research on the Mediterranean transhipment market the past decade and am updating an article on the subject. As I see it things are happening in the Mediterranean. The key question is, whether Gioia Tauro, harbour in the southern tip of Italy has become the "Hub" of the region, since its spectacular start in 1996.
Hubbing is trade between smaller harbours in the region, with mega carriers and a network of feeder ships leaving from a central port. Through this concept trade becomes more profitable. Informing the reader the analyses of the subject has become difficult due to a mixture of arguments with a logistic and economic nature. Any comment on the structure of the extract is welcome.


In recent history transhipment has become a global phenomenon. Transhipment is the transfer of containerised goods from large to smaller ships, with terminals located nearby serving as storage units. Mediterranean harbours are still fighting for an increasing part in this emerging market. With the current road congestion, some argue that the environment would be well served by stimulating sea traffic through a system of main ports. The European bureaucrats in particular promote this view. Technically speaking the idea is to provide freight to smaller harbours from these main ports along the Western European coastline. Coastal shipping as it is called would imply the Mediterranean region as well. Several Mediterranean harbours like Barcelona, Marseille-Fos, Algeciras, Genoa, Malta Freeport, and Gioia Tauro do want to become the hub port of Southern Europe. They compete with each other with differing lengths of quays, hinterland location, quick access to rail and roads, low cost tariffs and privately owned container terminals. Related to the day to day business mentality of the shipping world, cost considerations are very important as opposed to previously mentioned supranational politics. Some details seem remarkable, for example, it is interesting to notice that the major part of trade meant for the Mediterranean goes through Northern European harbours. However, due to the closedness of Mediterranean transport and the conservatism of European liner companies, apart from the Scandinavian Maersk, opportunities in the area are seldom recognised. As a result of labour unrest and bureaucratic mismanagement, the region has a dubious reputation in the eyes of the European shipping community. But does it really deserve this reputation?

The shipping community

In recent history legal innovations have liberalised the Italian transport market in it’s strive to become more competitive. Developments like privatisation have changed the Italian scene from 1996 onwards, setting maritime bodies free from state-control and pushing further economic activity. Though American and Asian shipping companies like Sealand, Evergreen and Hanjin have taken shares in Italian container companies, Northern Europeans are slow in reacting to new opportunities. Maersk aside, their traditionalism and the absence of trust in the growing potential of the Mediterranean is to blame for this.

Trade to the black sea has evolved greatly in the Mediterranean, thereby stimulating transhipment in general and feedering in specific. Feedering is transport in connection to intercontinental services. The growth in containerisation facilitates trade expansion since more can be transported while pressing costs. This interacts with the concept of combined transport, the ship-rail-road connection. This is otherwise known as intermodalism, which generates possible further advantages. This would require harbours with hinterland in order to be able to offer a smooth logistic chain. And the rising demand in the area requires cooperation between harbours to push down costs. Since ship owners operate in a buyers market, their strong position enables them to play one harbour off against the other. Consequently low pricing would be the obvious weapon for harbours. With the increasing demand for specialised container terminals (from 35 MTEU in 1996 to 75 MTEU in 2008) one could assume that the Mediterranean is on the rise. But the lack of cooperation is proving to be a threat for the future.

Gioia Tauro

Harbours like Algeciras, Marseille, Barcelona, Malta- Freeport and Taranto also have container terminals enabling them to play an important role in the Mediterranean. Gioia Tauro which has done so well with remarkable growth figures since its introduction in 1996 is the model of a modernized harbour with a vast hinterland and extensive possibilities to handle ships. This was largely the result of government efforts reducing tight state control over Italian harbours as mentioned above. Furthermore competitive pricing largely furthering its success, this harbour met the demands of modern time. It represents a generation of harbours that have developed from mere cargo-destination points and demand driven institutions to info centres offering complete logistic chains from cargo handling, feeder possibilities, storage and inland transport. From a public-private point of view one could say that the concept of intermodalism serves both business and environmental demands. In this respect Gioia Tauro offers a solution to road congestion at lower costs. Furthermore, as a key harbour in Mediterranean transhipment, it is able to push coastal and short sea shipping.

Tirrenia di Navigazione

Italian administrations have done much to improve the countries image in the eyes of the foreign investors through pushing functional integration. The General Transport plan and the Blue Plan gave financial support to harbours from the seventies onwards. Though modernisation went on after WO ll, through lack of investment the Italian harbours soon went into decline. These plans pushed back traditional individualism striving for rationalisation and benefits of scale. This could be achieved by integrating the Italian harbour systems. With the privatisation of the mid-nineties the naval market opened up to European investment. Leading up to waves of participations and joint-ventures. As from 2008 onwards the new state-owned "Tirrenia di Navigazione", a boot-rail combination existing out of the Venetian Adriatica di Navigazione and some regional train companies, will be operational with 87 ships. The company will be organized in three divisions, medium and long range, regional services and freight logistics. The last division will cooperate with the private sector. This “Ferry Merger Plan” however opposes free competition forcing private shipping companies to attract money from the capital market. Finally the Italian flag register led to cooperation between the Italian and foreign shipping companies and tax reduction.

European transport policy

Next to increased foreign investment, supranational interests can't be overlooked. According to the EU maritime transport over long distance seemed a good alternative to road transport. Though possible cost advantages and lessened burden on the environment seemed hard to ignore, not all the initiatives made the day. The “Via Mare” between Sicily and Voltri was cut short as a result of political opposition.

Through implementation of the so-called Transeuropean transport networks, European transport policy aims amongst others for the development of harbours and new technologies. Mediterranean harbours should position themselves as transition points in central-European trade. It is a good argument for intermodalism, since most of that trade doesn't go through these harbours either.

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