Head to head

DP World's Yarimca is one of many Marmara developments on the boil
DP World's Yarimca is one of many Marmara developments on the boil
"Constanta still has the biggest potential of any existing port in the area,” Andrew Griffiths, BMT
Constanta is hoping to recapture former glories. Credit: Cod Gabriel
Constanta is hoping to recapture former glories. Credit: Cod Gabriel

There's a clash of personalities between the Black and Marmara seas, as Stevie Knight discovers

Black Sea ports are looking at growth again, not least because the surrounding countries, bar two, are actually outside Eurozone. However standing at the gateway to future development is the Turkish Sea of Marmara, through which all Black Sea port traffic must pass.

Rather than lumping the Sea of Marmara together with the Black Sea, you should actually consider this area as “a well defined competitor”, says Andrew Griffiths of BMT.

Firstly, Mr Griffiths points out that the Black Sea countries are starting from a very low baseline after the economic devastation of 2007 and 2008. It’s worth noting that Georgia’s projected 6% growth, Russia's 4% and Ukraine’s 3% increase is still being driven largely by factors outside Europe: there’s a huge agribulk industry on the up with, for example, grain exports from the Ukraine going ‘all points east’, plus a rising steel draw from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar which is adding to volumes.

However, one big issue, as Mr Griffiths says, is that large box ships could start to go from the Far East via the Suez Canal through to the Marmara ports then overland, avoiding the bottleneck of the Bosphorus entirely.

The Marmara region has some big developments on the boil: DP World is putting in a 1m teu terminal at Yarimca, and there is also Tekirdag Asyaport which is planned at 2m teu. There is the old Ambarli port which is gaining from an upgrade and a number of other facilities being planned further along the coast, so the Sea of Marmara has a projected capacity of 11.4m teu by 2020.

Steve Wray of OSC explains the strength of the Turkish economy is driving both domestic export and imports, reaching up from the lower end textiles to automotive units which arrive in parts and leave assembled. Despite the Euro’s recent troubles, and a little umming and erring from the EU about some of the country’s politics, Turkey still has a desire to get into the EU and foster trade relations. “If you are used to having extreme currency fluctuations and been forced to suffer a devalued lira a number of times, then being inside Europe could look a better bet,” says Mr Wray, including for attracting port investment.

However, operations even at the four largest Marmara facilities of Marport, Kumport, Yilport and Evyap aren’t doing as well as they could be, says Michiel Ybema of APM Terminals, with lengthy average container dwell times.

Imprecise evolution
He is, however, quick to point out that this isn’t down to lack of investment but more to the nature of how the ports started life: “At the moment there is no purpose built box terminal in the area, they are all conversions of ports that were originally built to handle different cargoes and vessel sizes.”

That means in some cases the yard areas are not designed to take the pressure from five or six layers of full containers, so the stacking height has to be limited. Mr Ybema adds the yards are often quite tight and sometimes have warehouses in the way, which makes it challenging to handle, store and retrieve containers.

Despite this, Mr Wray points out that if vessels continue to increase in size, they will favour deeper water terminals and larger landside areas. “This is one reason why Turkey is rising: Izmir and Ambarli have gained calls and it’s feasible that Turkish ports can recreate themselves at transhipment hubs, just as Constanta in Romania did in the past.”

Constanta itself probably hopes not. The port is hoping for a change of fortune as 2008 saw it peaking at 1.4m teu. A large part of its traffic was transhipment however and this just evaporated leaving 2010 volumes only reaching 556,000 teu.

A second box terminal which had reached the planning stage was eventually not put out to tender due to lack of interest, and DP World froze all expansion plans. Still, Mr Griffiths is certain that it’s a star that will rise again: “Constanta still has the biggest potential of any existing port in the area.” While the current capacity is 1.65m teu, by 2020 capacity will have risen to 3.4m teu.

One point is that it has land available for development unlike quite a number of the other city ports which have limited landside potential: for example, Varna in Bulgaria has expansion issues and despite Odessa’s size it’s going to be struggling for room against the city’s cruise and tourism development.

Interestingly, Constanta has a canal link, via Agigea to the Danube which passes fairly close to the city and goes on to Central and Eastern Europe. Romanian businessman Calin Petculescu explains that the Danube already has bulk and container traffic, with a regular service as far as Budapest so DP World and, to a lesser extent, APMT (which has a multimodal facility there) both have an interest in developing this strand.

Mr Petculescu adds that you can’t ignore that 1,250 km of the Danube winds through Romania, and already provides a link for both Romania and Serbia all the way from the Black Sea and up, Regensburg, to Rotterdam.

“The only problem is the draft,” he says, which is “variable”, adding that some deepening measures - including the link between the river and Bucharest - have already had EU grant money, which unfortunately “evaporated”, leaving the job only half done. However, he is certain that the area, with its Danube link, is at the heart of a growth industry.

So, the dreams could be big. “Constanta lies only 700 km from the Suez so when – not if – all the links are put in place the port may even draw in lucrative traffic from the Asia to Eastern and Central Europe routes,” says Mr Griffiths. So, the dreams could be big. “Constanta lies only 700km from the Suez so when – not if – all the links are put in place the port may even draw in lucrative traffic from the Asia to Eastern and Central Europe routes,” says Mr Griffiths.

The obvious problem is that there are virtually no modern terminals on the Danube, and investment in container yards is sorely needed. “So what you have is the classic chicken and egg situation,” says Mr Griffiths. “Once links are in place you’ll see things start gaining momentum.”

However, there are murmurs of intrigue. Some sources say that it will never be allowed to develop as a short route from Far East, as the Turks are basically choking the Bosphorus for their own ends; while depth isn’t so much of a problem there are two existing low air-draft bridges in place and third being built. In short, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Turkey has an interest in limiting sizes through the strait as it means more traffic gets routed to Marmara.

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