Ships are less in danger at sea than at port, Giorgos Vlachos, general secretary of the Merchant Marine Ministry, told a Thessaloniki conference this week on «Greek Ports, Present and Future.» His observation vividly points up the condition of harbors in the country that leads in global maritime shipping. Everyone present agreed domestic ports lack modern infrastructure and cannot respond to the growing needs of shipping. Large international companies need storage space for products at the ports of Piraeus, Thessaloniki, Iraklion, and others, but facilities are not sufficient. The Chinese, who last year increased their exports by 34 percent, chose big Greek ports as their portals for transporting goods to Europe, but the Greeks could not help them due to lack of infrastructure; and of course it was not China who lost from that. The same problems arise with Balkan states who use the Thessaloniki, Kavala and Alexandroupolis ports as their gateways. The answer in this case, too, was, «We would love to, but there’s no storage space.» Worse, an avalanche of containers is expected soon as those ships that used to carry between 5,500 and 8,500 such boxes each will now be carrying 12,000 containers. The problem is not just how to unload and store all the goods but also how such ships can dock in Greek ports safely, given that they currently go in and out of ports at their risk due to the shallow waters and antiquated infrastructure. For instance, a few days ago two ships had their propellers broken as they hit the seabed, while the dock of the Zakynthos port was slightly damaged by a passenger vessel. «We send divers to see whether there is a risk the dock might move when a big vessel reaches it,» Vlachos admitted. «Why then should a shipowner bring his ships to our ports?» The ministry is therefore rushing to make sure it does not miss the boat. As Vlachos announced, the ministry has prepared a modernization plan for Greek port infrastructures that includes the creation of storage spaces, the upgrading of the existing ones and improvement in the security of ships and their cargo. The private sector is also involved, while the government is in negotiations with the European Central Bank and is soon expected to sign a cooperation memorandum for a 3-billion-euro loan. The government will add a similar amount to fund the port modernization and upgrading program. Vlachos explained to Kathimerini that priority will be given to 12 out of the country’s 70 ports. These are Corfu, Igoumenitsa, Patras, Iraklion, Alexandroupolis, Kavala, Thessaloniki, Volos, Rafina, Lavrion, Piraeus and Elefsina. Foreign currency influx from shipping in 2004 amounted to 13.307 billion euros, against 9.569 billion in 2003, showing a 39.05 percent increase. This rising trend continued in the first quarter of 2005, with a 10 percent rise over the January-March 2004 period.