ECONOMY

Can Greece be a logistics hub?

Greece has only a year, at best, to decide whether it wants to become a logistics hub in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, experts warn. The warning comes as Chinese maritime group COSCO has expressed an interest in investing in the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki. The government, on the other hand, while open to an «operational partnership» with COSCO, has ruled out selling any stake in the two ports in which it is the majority shareholder. «There is no such option,» Manolis Papadimitrakis, aide to the Merchant Marine Ministry’s General Secretary for Ports and Port Policy Giorgos Vlachos, told Kathimerini. He added that talks on an eventual operational partnership «involve other ports, as well, but they are still at an early stage.» A possible Chinese investment in Greek ports was discussed by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis during his visit to China, where, on January 20, he met COSCO President Wei Jiafu. On Tuesday, COSCO Pacific sent a letter to the Merchant Marine Ministry outlining its proposal. «We are not interested in being involved in all of the Piraeus and Thessaloniki port operations, but only in the container terminals, that is Piers 1 and 2 in Piraeus and Pier 6 in Thessaloniki,» COSCO Shipping Agency (Greece) Managing Director Li Keqiang told Kathimerini. Pier 1 in Piraeus is under construction at a cost of 35 million euros, while an agreement will be signed soon with the European Investment Bank, the EU’s long-term credit institution, to finance the expansion of Pier 6 in the Thessaloniki port. «I wish we could manage to become a logistics hub for the Chinese… However, if we fail to sign an agreement by next year, we will hear they agreed with the Turks, the Italians, or the Maltese,» said Stamatis Andrianopoulos, executive consultant with Planning SA, the first Greek consultancy specializing in logistics. Andrianopoulos, who founded Planning SA in 1989, said Thessaloniki would be ideal as an international logistics hub, due to its proximity with the Balkans. «Piraeus would also be a good solution, but the extra distance adds to transport costs.» Andrianopoulos believes that Chinese investment in the ports would be ideal. However, «even an operational agreement is a positive move, since it would put Greece on a map as a transport hub,» he said. The trouble for Greece is that several other alternatives exist: Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Turkey. Andrianopoulos jokes that «the real enemy is Italy, not Turkey» because of its far better transport network, experience in building storage facilities and, of course, proximity to the rest of Europe. This is a fact that has not escaped COSCO, either. In partnership with a European company, it controls 70 percent of the port of Naples’s container terminal. In December 2004, Wei said that the group is willing to invest up to 80 million euros in a new container terminal in Naples’s Eastern (Levante) Dock, where major works are due to take place between 2006 and 2008. Logistics experts say that Greece can, if it wants, still follow the examples of the Netherlands and Singapore, which have become important regional logistics hubs. «We have many advantages, especially in the quality of our facilities and our information systems. Where we are still behind is in organization, operations and methods,» said Andrianopoulos, who added that the private sector, on the whole, is well-equipped to take the challenge. «It is the public sector that lags way behind.» The government appears to have understood the urgency of the situation and has passed a law to create six major logistics facilities throughout Greece. «But it still has not adapted to the demanding pace of the private sector,» Andrianopoulos said.