PORT SERIES: PIRAEUS

Athens' port of Piraeus is regaining its former glory as Chinese COSCO takes over.

View of the Piraeus Container Terminal, near Athens, Greece. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis


Just by looking at the Greek coast, one can image how important ports have been there throughout antiquity.
Not only landmarks for trade between city-states, ports also served as tactical positions to defend from invaders.

Themistocles, one of the most prominent rulers of classic Athens after his election in 493 BC as Archon of the city, saw in the current location of Piraeus port a natural harbor with strategic potential, and thus orchestrated the transfer of Athens' fleet from its original harbor of Phaleron to Piraeus.

Athens' new harbor ushered in an expansion period that was marked by the construction of a port and the Themistoclean Walls.

This turned Piraeus into a dynamic military and commercial point, increasing Athens' naval capacity and contributing to the city state's most enlightened years.

The port played a major role during the Greco-Persian Wars, especially at the battle of Salamis, which was the first great naval battle documented in history and won by the Greeks.

More recently, in Greece's battle against the financial crisis, the start of the Greek government privatization plans in 2009 led the Piraeus Port Authority to lease two of its docks to Chinese logistics giant COSCO under a 35-year lease agreement in exchange for a yearly EUR100 million payment.

The port has great importance for the Chinese, as it is where the modern maritime Silk Road connects with its land route.

COSCO eventually took over the management of the Piraeus Port Authority, a turning point in Sino-Greek relations and expansion of China's influence in Eastern Europe.

According to the American Center for Strategic and International Studies, Chinese investment in Central and Eastern Europe reached USD9.4 billion over the 2016-2017 period.

Out of this amount, $4.9 billion went to non-EU members states Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia; although all of them are under joining negotiations.

Since COSCO's investments, the port has been expanded and upgraded with increased infrastructure capacity, including improved railway connection since 2013, which seems to responds to Chinese ambitions of reducing freight time between Asia and East Europe.

With all this the port has been gaining prominence as an international hub for logistics. On Lloyd's List of Top 100 Container Ports from 2017, Piraeus is ranked 38th, with 3,736,644 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) after a 12.2% increase.

In 2015 the port was ranked 44th, while in 2010 the position was 93rd.

Piraeus is today the third largest port in the Mediterranean after Spain's Algeciras and Valencia, ranked 28th and 29th respectively.

The port of Piraeus is now entering a new expansion phase with Greece ready to launch a tender for one of the biggest scale projects to be carried out at the port.

After this extraordinary increase in container handling, the Piraeus Port Authority's plans are targeting to raise the port's numbers in passenger traffic, which in 2017 stood at 15.5 million coastal passengers and 1 million cruise passengers.

With a funding budget of EUR170 million, the tender provides for the construction in the southern zone of the port of a new terminal that can accommodate four next-generation cruise liners simultaneously.

According to COSCO, its plans would be a step forward in setting Piraeus apart as a tourism destination. Increased capacity for cruise ships will be complemented by four new hotels close to the port and further advance the attractiveness of Greece for international tourists.

Though still on its way out of the crisis, Greece has avoided an even worse economic feat thanks to the tourism sector.

In 2017 the total contribution of the tourism sector to the GDP of the country was EUR 35 billion, 19.7% of the total.

It is expected to exceed 20% in 2018.

Thanks to the strategic alliance with COSCO, the port has gained new momentum.

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