Rewriting the script
For years Sicily has been seen as a problematic location for container port operations but now the tide is turning.
The problems with Palermo as a container port have been well documented – back in the bad old days it was the mafia exerting its influence over terminal operations in the port. The beginning of the decade saw terminal concessions cancelled in Palermo for mafia infiltration and new operators appointed who, in turn, were also found to be operating under the influence of the mafia.
This era has, however, passed with the mafia generally subdued in Sicily and operating at a level widely characterised as “street gang” status. There have, however, been other problems to confront since this time and particularly lack of investment. Progress has, though, been made this year in this respect with the Western Sicilian Sea Port Authority announcing the award of €39.3 million in order to finance the construction of a basin in the port able to accommodate large vessels.
Additionally, funding has been made available to the port for dredging works via the National Operational Program (PON) Infrastructure and Networks 2014-20, provided by the European Regional Development Fund. Improvements have also been made in terms of road access to the port and outside the container sector there are new terminal development plans including a project for a new ro-ro terminal.
Further, earlier this year the prospect was raised of the port of Palermo being the focus of a $5.7 billion investment by a Shanghai based investment fund with the objective of transforming the port into a major hub. This project, however, remains very much on the drawing board. It also falls into the category of those projects which there is some concern about in western political circles from the standpoint of China gaining influence through strategic infrastructure investments.
As a container port, however, today Palermo has a relatively minor status with this position unlikely to change in the near term – in 2018 it handled approximately 16,000TEU. It is without doubt nowadays a very junior partner in container handling in Sicily with the port of Catania presently occupying pole position but nearby Augusta being prepared to claim this crown before too long.
The ports of Catania and Augusta both fall under the management of the Eastern Sicily Port Authority which has recently devised a plan for the future development of both ports in the dry cargo sector. In 2018 Catania handled nearly 60,000TEU, a figure that signals its quite small container terminal is operating at capacity.
Question marks also arise over it being fit for purpose as a result of its inability to accommodate the entire length of the larger container feeder vessels along its quay and recent problems associated with the integrity of the quay structure as well as concerns over rising traffic congestion on the landside. The port of Catania is located in close proximity to the urban environment of the City of Catania, Sicily’s second largest city.
RESTRUCTURING OF PORT ACTIVITIES
It is against this background that the Port Authority of Eastern Sicily foresees a future configuration of port activities whereby the port of Augusta, located in a more industrial area with plenty of available land, will take the lead in the container handling business.
The current ITSA terminal in Augusta is capable of offering a container capacity of over 100,000TEU and butts up to a new area under development that can offer major new container throughput capacity. It also has the advantage of deeper draft and unimpeded access on the landside.
And being located just under 50km from Catania a relocation of container operations at this location would not negatively impact existing container distribution arrangements in terms of both service and cost.
Catania meanwhile, the Port Authority of Eastern Sicily envisages, can grow its role as a cruise port which has seen tremendous growth over the last two years and this year is expected to account for 205,000 passengers, representing growth of over 60 per cent compared to 2018.
With the interesting city of Catania on its doorstep, the historic city of Syracuse nearby and overlooked by Mount Etna the port of Catania is a ‘natural’ as a cruise centre.
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