Pandemic notwithstanding, global ports report stability, growth

2020 December 01: As this ‘year like no other’ entered its final weeks, a majority of the world’s cargo ports were reporting stability in volumes. Other ports reported a clear rebound for all three major market segments – containers, bulk and liquid bulk.

Despite issues and challenges (like persistent delays with intermodal cargo movement from ports to hinterland or across inland borders), cargo was moving. This was documented in in the International Association of Ports and Harbours (IAPH) COVID-19 Port Economic Barometer report published on November 16.

“The reopening of markets and the current wave of restocking/stockpiling have resulted in a surge of containerised flows in recent weeks. This is testing the capacity limits of ports/terminals and the inland transport systems, leading to disruptions in hinterland transport connectivity in some ports,” said Dr. Patrick Verhoeven, IAPHs Managing Director of Policy and Strategy. He stated that the most significant revelations from the study were delays in intermodal connections and increased capacity utilisation.

The report is in sync with what Portside Caribbean observed in the Caribbean and published in the Fall edition (Vol 3. No.18). Cruise port lockdowns and no-sail orders devastated Caribbean tourism. World trade at the start of the pandemic was already depressed in a persistently sluggish global economic environment, as noted by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Notwithstanding, global supply chains, occasionally disrupted or hampered by crippling difficulties in moving seafarers to and from cargo ships, remained intact.

Barbados, in April saw 10 fewer cargo vessel arrivals in contrast to 35 fewer cruise ship calls. And whereas Curaçao (which had 100 cruise calls in the first quarter of 2020) had zero/nil cruise ships calling in the second quarter; 180 cargo ships of all types docked in its safe haven between April and June.

Indeed, even as the volume of global trade in goods fell by 17.7% in May 2020 (ECLAC) Martinique recorded an increase of 6% in cargo ship arrivals during the first half of the year as compared to the corresponding period in 2019. And so, as 2020 came to an end, while cargo-handling equipment worked, cruise ports remained largely silent and abandoned.


The November IAPH COVID-19 Port Economic Barometer report, authored by Prof. Theo Notteboom (Shanghai Maritime Univ., Ghent Univ. and Univ. of Antwerp) and Professor Thanos Pallis (University of the Aegean and Universidad de Los Andes) noted that at the end of week 45 (November 8, 2020):

  • More ports were reporting increased utilization of warehousing and distribution facilities for foodstuff, medical supplies and consumer goods.
  • The COVID-19 crisis was by then having significantly reduced impact on the availability of port workers and seafarers. Measures implemented by many countries to facilitate the movement of these frontline workers were working and only 8.3% of the ports polled stated that they were experiencing difficulties in contracting dockworkers. This figure was three percentage points above the record low of 5% recorded in week 29 and far below the 12-13% range in weeks 23 to 27. November brought a small increase in the number of ports reporting worker shortages, which was partly explained by the increased volumes going through many ports.
  • Since last October, there was an increase in the number of ports that reported issues relating to availability of truck drivers. This the authors attributed to the trending surge in import volumes.
  • The practice of port authority administration staff working from home offices continued and had become increasingly widespread. Administrative staff were still telecommuting from home while, generally, only essential operational staff were physically going to the port as normal for work. In some ports, the report stated, working from home was happening at “an even more intense scale.” In Europe, the authors observed, the practice started to expand again at the end of the period under review, particularly in those countries in which detected COVID-19 infections (at the port or beyond) were increasing.

Comparison by region

Regional comparisons showed that the traffic situation was better in Asia, where more than 70% of ports enjoyed stability in all cargo markets. The remainder reported declines ranging from 5% to 25%.

Half of the ports in the other regions, specifically North America, Central and Latin America and some regions of Europe, reported stable volumes with Latin American and European terminals indicating stronger levels of decline. Few ports, mostly in North America, reported a notable increase in container traffic compared to the previous year.

“Although some cargoes decreased, quite a number of the world’s ports answering the survey added that the economic reactivation is leading to the continuity of projected growth, as they work to ensure the continuity of port services and activities as well,” the authors noted.

Many ports that responded to the November 2020 IAPH COVID-19 Port Economic Barometer survey reported some decrease in cargo volumes. However, a significant number of the world’s ports felt that the economic reactivation that became evident towards the end of the year was leading to continuity of projected growth.

This was the feeling and expectation across the Caribbean expressed at major online conferences of both the Port Management Association of the Caribbean and the Caribbean Shipping Association. []