Strategic gateway to Mideast pushes improvements at bustling ports

By , the Monitor's Middle East correspondent.

The quayside at the seven-year-old New Port of Limassol is crowded with bright green, 40-foot-long shipping containers. They are stacked two-high in marshaling yards, rest in unpaved fields, and even fill part of the employees' parking lot.

Just to the west of the port's turning basin, a visitor can easily miss a rectangular concrete area flush with ground level and barely 40 paces long. When the new port was first designed, in 1973, this small patch of concrete, about the size of a basketball court, was to be for containers. But since 1973 port traffic has boomed to such an extent that the original container area is all but lost in the crush.

"The trend in containerization here has been very, very impressive," says John Ghighis, the Limassol port manager. "As you can see, we're stacking them everywhere and planning to expand our holding areas."

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The way Cypriots are coping with accelerating trade at Limassol is typical of what is going on throughout the island. Current facilities are efficient, but running at capacity; workers are making do; newer facilities are on the way; and the government is soft-selling the advantages of Cyprus in international trade while the necessary expansion takes place.

In 1980, Limassol handled 80,000 20-foot equivalent units of containers. Larnaca, up the coast to the west, handled 20,000. By 1985, container volume is expected to be double what it is today. But containers actually accounted for only 16 percent of the cargo that moved through Limassol in 1980. The bulk was conventional cargo (about 80 percent), while the rest of it came in roll-on, roll-off vessels. Planners expect containerized business to level off at around 25 percent of total cargo in the next few years -- which adds up to a surge in trade in the early 1980s.

The growth of Limassol is due in part to the loss of vital shipping facilities at Famagusta in 1974. But given the location of Cyprus at the gateway to the Suez Canal, the Levant, and the Aegean, even half of the island is a geographical magnet for shipping.

"Shipping is a real growth area for us," Commerce Minister Constantinos Kittis says. "We now cater to more cargo than before 1974, even without Famagusta."

Cypriot businessmen have been trade-conscious for centuries. Since the island's independence in 1960, the government has promoted exports throughout the world, establishing trade centers in such potential markets as London, New York, Brussels, Cologne, and Dubai.

The Ministry of Commerce and Industry carries out overseas advertising campaigns, organizes the island's participation in international and specialized trade fairs, and invites foreign businessmen to Cyprus. Also aiding trade development are market research, bilateral trade agreements, and the annual Cyprus International Fair, first held in 1976.

But when all is said and done, it is the ability of Cypriot businessmen and technicians to deliver that facilities commerce. To this end, the government has recently developed a "free industrial zone" at Larnaca, is building a new $ 21.3 million airport at Paphos, upgrading an already top-notch telecommunication system, and improving the island's road network. Larnaca and Limassol ports are receiving a $51 million upgrading.

Ironically, if the island were to be reunited in the near future, it would be bristling with trade facilities. There would be three very large seaports (Famagusta, Limassol, Larnaca), and four international airports (Larnaca, the new one at Paphos, the decommissioned Nicosia airport, and Ercan airport on the Turkish side). But it is probable that all would be bustling.

Although Cypriot trade originally received a boost after the loss of services at the Port of Beirut, planners believe the natural role of Cyprus, at least in sea-borne transit, is as a terminus of long-range shipments, with shuttles delivering merchandise to Lebanon, Syria, and other regional neighbors that have access inland.

"If we had the facilities and the capacity," says Petros Avgousti, a Limassol cargo handling officer, "we could be handling a great percentage of Middle East container traffic. A lot of Lebanese businessmen are choosing to store their goods in containers at Limassol until they feel confident they can move them to Beirut."

This will not forever be the trend, Mr. Avgousti admits. Yet it does show one way that Cyprus is developing as the region's "safe port."

Already, 65 percent of the container traffic into Cyprus is long-range in nature. The trend in recent years has been for Cyprus ports to be served by a smaller number of freighters with a higher tonnage, indicative of the preference of cyprus for long-range hauls.

At present, port authorities say, most container traffic through Limassol originates in the Far East (Taiwan, Japan, South Korea), comes via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal, and is bound for Cyprus and the Middle East. But a natural development would be to use Cyprus also as a cargo layover (and possibly dry dock) between the Far East, Europe, and the Balkans.

With expansion work completed, Larnaca and Limassol will be able to handle 23 ships at once, and Limassol will be equipped with a container crane.

Planners say the benefits to Cyprus from emphasizing development of shipping and transit trade facilities (as well as other infrastructural improvements) are that they will generate steady income, thereby stabilizing the foreign-aid-dependent economy and reducing uncertainty about the future.

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