In the Black Sea, Terminal Operators to become Shipowners

Istanbul - The Black Sea is a special place that offers little for generic analysts: it represents 2% of global container traffic.

di Alberto Quarati

Istanbul - “The Black Sea? It is a complex area, each country that faces the Black Sea has its own peculiarities, which should be known and studied carefully.” This assessment comes from Gianluca Di Matteo, Crosstrade & Feeder Sales at Tarros - one of those companies that reaches the farthest corners of the earth and is now unfortunately often in more dangerous locations than the Mediterranean. Di Matteo always has his finger on the pulse of the situation. More than anywhere, the Black Sea is a special place that offers little for generic analysts: it represents 2% of global container traffic, reaching south to the Bosphorus, which as Jolke Helbing, the Consulting Director ICF International, pointed out, is a natural barrier in terms of its dimensions and because of the draft of ships. Growth in the area means it will require new ad hoc solutions. It is clear that in this context, Turkey plays a very important role: Istanbul, with the Marmara Sea port system, is both a transit point and a hub for the Black Sea, and now that internal traffic is suffering serious setbacks because of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, northern Anatolian ports need to interface with the outside more than ever, to reach out through the double barrier of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles so as not to be marginalized, and to find an outlet for the area’s industrial production.

Not to mention the fact that no port past the Bosphorus is equipped to receive ships over 4,000 TEU in capacity, except for the port of Constanţa. With the widening of the Suez canal, it will be ever more tempting for the shipping companies to take their 18,000-TEU mega units beyond the Dardanelles. Expansionary policy is not enough, and as has become clear at the Black Sea Ports of Istanbul, major investments in infrastructure are not the only way forward, unless of course the decision is made to dig a canal alongside the Bosphorus. Investments are being calibrated, Helbing warns, because the danger that looms is overcapacity. Captain Umar Ugurlu, Sea Freight Manager for Omsan Logistics gets into the specifics, wondering whether the Black Sea mega container terminal at Fylos, which is currently being designed, will ever reach its planned maximum capacity, 1.5 million TEU. Even if the ministry’s predictions for operators are too optimistic (+15% growth from now to 2030), an increase in traffic and the arrival of larger ships is already under way. Therefore, what really counts are the feeder services, which Ugurlu classifies as follows: from 700 to 1200 TEU, from 450 to 750 TEU and most of all from 200-250 TEU.

Ugurlu suggests in particular that these very short range services could be managed not by the companies - there are too many conflicts of interest that undermine the purpose of these operations, which is to support traffic fluidity - but rather by consortia of terminal operators, perhaps with State support. This would result in a sort of dispersed terminal which would make it possible to manage the feeder services from Istanbul to the Black Sea faster, or between neighbouring internal ports themselves, and the system would guarantee “greater independence in service.” In short, we often see shipowners become terminal operators, doing business on land, but this proposal is the other way around, although Ugurlu points out that it certainly wouldn’t be the first time ever. A second issue raised by Ugurlu is the problem of productivity in the area: nowadays even the larger terminal operators in the area, like Ambarli on the Marmara Sea or the immense terminal in Constanta managed by the Emirati company DP World, move 0.3 TEU per minute: that is only half of what Northern European ports move, in an area in which shipowners want greater performance but aren’t willing to pay more for it. All things considered, there is no shortage of challenges, not even on Turkey’s golden coasts.