Photo: Barcelona Europe South Terminal

With the Red Sea crisis continuing to perpetuate congestion across key container hubs in the West Mediterranean, a planned greenfield port in Morocco could become one of the most hotly contested port concessions in recent history.

Utilisation levels at the larger West Mediterranean container terminals have continued to climb over the past fortnight, as large volumes of ex-Asia shipments destined for the East Mediterranean have been transhipped.

The rerouting of vessels around the Cape of Good Hope has effectively cut off ports east of France from the main trade routes and relegated their calls to feeder and shuttle services from West Med hubs.

But those ports are finding it increasingly difficult to absorb the extra boxes. John-Paul Verschurre, ports & logistics director at consultancy Rebel Group, told delegates at last week’s TOC Europe 24 event in Rotterdam, utilisation at Tanger Med had now reached (an effectively full) 91%, with Algeciras at 82%, Barcelona at 66% and Valencia at 61%.

And those carriers that don’t own terminal capacity in the region have been scrambling to find transhipment capacity.

“There are quite a few lines that don’t have equity positions in the West Med ports and when these ports get full their vessels fall to the back of the queue,” said Mr Verschurre.

He cited the example of Hapag-Lloyd, which despite holding a 10% stake in Tanger Med’s TC3 terminal, has been forced to tranship East Med volumes at Barcelona’s sole common-user terminal, Hutchison’s Barcelona Europe South (BEST).

Barcelona Port Authority director of strategy Jordi Torrent confirmed that, of the port’s three container terminals, it was BEST “that has been growing the fastest this year”.

And Hassan Abkari, MD of Tanger Med Port Authority, told delegates the Moroccan hub had been handling unprecedented volumes in recent weeks.

“We have noticed recently that vessels from Asia have been arriving with a draught of over 17.4 metres, implying they are completely loaded – we didn’t expect to see that for another 10 years.

“A lot of vessels are coming fully packed with containers because they are not calling at any ports before us – although the difference between net growth at Tanger Med and the impact of the Red Sea is quite difficult to separate.

“As a result, lines are today moving their transhipment positions. I expect to see much more use of some West Africa ports – Walvis Bay in Namibia could develop huge capacity – while some ships with 14.5-metre draught are going to Dakar to unload West Africa volumes there,” he said.

As result, many carriers are looking with increasing interest at the proposed Nador West Port, which will see a 3m teu container terminal built, among other facilities.

Nador West is located on Morocco’s Med coast, some 250km east of the Straits of Gibraltar, and its concession is expected to be fiercely contested by carriers, particularly China’s Cosco, whose East Med hub of Piraeus has been one of the hardest hit by the vessel diversions.

“There have been sizeable declines in port calls and berth durations at Piraeus and Port Said,” said Mr Verschuure. “If the Red Sea crisis persists over years, I would expect Nador West to fill up very quickly, and Cosco is tipped to bid big for this project.”

Partly funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, construction of Nador West’s infrastructure is underway and scheduled for completion this year.

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