The Port of Piraeus (PP), lying about 10 kilometers southwest of Athens, Greece, is a strategically important location because of its proximity to the Aegean Sea, the maritime crossroads between Asia and Europe, and is linked by shipping routes to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Designed by Greek architect Hippodamus in the 5th century BC, it remained one of the most prosperous ports of Greece and Europe for a long time.
There are many stories about the Port of Piraeus. A vivid description of the bustling port can be found in the writings of Athenian playwright Arisophanes: “People yelled at the crowd around the captain, buying leather goods, belts and jars, or garlic, olive oil, nets of onions, garlands, anchovies. ... On the bow of the ship stood a gilded figurehead of the goddess Athena. From below the pier came the sound of hammers hitting pegs, drilling holes, the sound of reed pipes and pan flutes, the racket of sailors and the song of birds.”
The Aegean Sea
At that time, PP was hustling and bustling and there were merchants everywhere. Its prosperity was second to none.
However, this busy port fell into a gradual decline due to several reasons and the fall was hastened by the 2008 global financial crisis and Greece’s sovereign debt crisis in its aftermath.
But in 2009 a new company, China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company (COSCO), obtained a contract to run the port and its revival started.
The Chinese were no strangers to the Port of Piraeus. When it was in its heyday in the 5th century BC, Scythian traders brought Chinese silk to the port from where it was sold all over Greece. The Chinese and Greek civilizations have a long history of exchanges and cooperation. This cultural compatibility played a vital role in COSCO’s swift blending with the port’s operation. COSCO faced several challenges – restoring order, reassuring the workers, and boosting business.
The financial crisis was a dark period for the Port of Piraeus. Its workers faced pay cuts and layoffs. There were strikes and vandalization. The equipment at the port was old and had not been maintained or repaired for a long time. The usage logs were missing. The container yard was in chaos, chockablock with ships. Its entrance was blocked by a line of trucks as long as 5 kilometers. Shipowners began to avoid the port en masse. COSCO faced several challenges – restoring order, reassuring the workers, and boosting business.
The company’s first step was to inform the worried port employees that they would not lose their jobs. The port belonged to the Greeks and would always be theirs. The new management would not have more than seven Chinese employees. Greek employees would be hired in all other posts. And the management kept their word.
A container terminal at the Port of Piraeus
After taking over the port’s operation, the COSCO personnel worked hard with the local employees to expand the port’s business. As the local market was limited, the management decided to concentrate on international markets. Since there weren’t enough ships and goods, they decided to woo transit cargos. The new company also took the responsibility of repairing or replacing the aging facilities. When the workers saw the new management’s efforts, their doubts were gradually dispelled and a feeling of solidarity grew.
Learning that the workers were struggling to buy their lunch, the company provided free lunch for them and asked them to manage the canteen. To share and appreciate each other’s cultural traditions, the workers were invited to the Chinese New Year party. To show they had the employees’ interests at heart, COSCO gave scholarships to employees’ meritorious children. These were some of the measures that helped the management turn employees’ trust to integration, leading to a greater development synergy.
“They didn’t come to grab our jobs. Instead, they created more job opportunities. In less than half a year, the Port of Piraeus started to make profits on a monthly basis. They have done what we longed to do for years,” Tassos Vamvakidis, the company’s business manager said. Tassos started working in the port when he was 16 and saw its prosperity, decline and rebirth. He also saw closely the whole process of the Chinese enterprise being doubted, then trusted, and the eventual integration with its local workforce.
The company’s claims manager, another witness to the port’s prosperity under COSCO’s management, quoted a proverb: “We Greeks have a proverb that three green shoots grow from the soil of wisdom. They are good ideas, good language and good actions. COSCO has blended Eastern wisdom with Greek culture. It has implemented advanced ideas, effective communication and practical actions, and it also respects our sentiments about the Port of Piraeus.”
A panoramic view of the Port of Piraeus
Captain Vitali, who comes from Italy’s Naples City, has been with his shipping company for more than a decade. His job is to ship cargos back and forth on the Mediterranean. He is familiar with most of the ports on this route and has witnessed the amazing changes at the Port of Piraeus.
He recalled his previous awful experience of stopping at the port. He reached the port with a shipload of cars. It took an age to get a tugboat and berth the ship. All this while the cars were at the mercy of the seagulls that scratched them and covered them with bird droppings. At the time of departure too there was a long wait for the tugboat, leaving him fuming.
But all that has changed. The port is vastly different from what it used to be. When a ship is still some distance away, a berth notice is given and a tugboat is ready to meet it instantaneously on arrival. Once the ship docks, the workers swing into action immediately with their cranes and fork trucks, speedily loading and unloading the cargo. The terminal has intelligent bird repellers to prevent the cargo from being damaged by birds. An hour before the ship departs, the port authorities inspect it for security and a tugboat is kept ready well in advance.
“The management at the port is excellent now with improvements in services like loading and unloading of cargo, departure, docking, tugboats, piloting and maintenance. Everything is in order. The services and hardware facilities are first-class in Europe.” The captain was amazed by the sharp contrast and heaped compliments on the port as he sipped coffee in the lounge.
Bridge cranes unloading containers
After 10 years’ arduous work, COSCO has created a modern myth about the Port of Piraeus in a country abounding in ancient myths. Terminals II and III of the port have been rebuilt, expanded and equipped with world-class loading and unloading equipment and cargo transport, and significant progress has made in management and services. The port has six sections – a container terminal, cruise terminal, car terminal, a ship repair facility, a ferry terminal, and logistics and warehousing, forming a complete industrial chain encompassing shipping, port and integrated logistics.
The ship owners who were gone have returned to the Port of Piraeus. Three major maritime alliances in the container shipping industry that enable vessel-sharing agreements have become its long-term clients, ensuring a stable business volume of 200 ship visits per month. The alliances have also included the port in 15 of their main ocean-going routes and 51 European regional routes and brought other resources.
In 2018, the port’s container throughput increased to 4.91 million TEUs under COSCO’s management from 680,000 TEUs before the Chinese company arrived. Its ranking among international ports jumped to 32nd from 93rd. Its overhead bridge crane loading and unloading speed increased from 15 TEUs per hour to 27 TEUs per hour, the top among European ports. The port can also load and unload five super-large ships weighing more than 14,000 TEUs each simultaneously. The world’s largest 21,000 TEU ships can also be docked there.
In 2018, the port’s accrued revenue was €330 million and its total profit €73.18 million. Commenting on the port’s fantastic progress, then Greek Parliament Speaker Nikos Voutsis said Greece was convinced that the cooperation between Greece and China in the Port of Piraeus project was positive, on an equal footing, and an important help for Greece.
For a long time, despite the excellent geographical position of the Port of Piraeus and despite it being the largest port in Greece, it functioned as a local port that was the final destination of the ships that docked there. But after the takeover, COSCO not only turned loss into profit, but also backed up Greece’s goal of building a regional transportation, energy and service hub around the Port of Piraeus.
Sophocles, a taxi driver by profession, was born in the old town of Piraeus. “I drive through the streets and lanes of the city every day and no one knows it better than I do,” he said.
“However, in recent years, it has been developing so fast that even old drivers like me have trouble remembering the new streets and new buildings,” he added.
Sophocles’ trips used to be in the old town. He would get only a few passengers and no long-distance ones. So he would call it a day fairly early. But with the expansion of Terminals II and III, more and more passengers are traveling between the old town and the Port of Piraeus. Sophocles is much busier now and his income has risen in proportion. “We are grateful to the Chinese for the changes in Piraeus,” he said, “they are polite and knowledgeable. I wish this had happened earlier.”
Many others in the city have the same feelings about the changes in their hometown. There was even greater joy when the railway opened.
Since the Port of Piraeus was connected to several sea routes, it was felt that if the cargo that docked at the port could be sent farther to landlocked European countries by rail, it would be faster and cost less.
To make that happen, COSCO advanced the construction of the China-Europe Land-Sea Express (CELSE) based on the Port of Piraeus. The multimodal transport starts from Ningbo Port in China, going up to the Port of Piraeus. Then the journey continues by land through the railway that goes up to Hungarian capital Budapest in central Europe through Skopje in Macedonia and Belgrade in Serbia. At present, CELSE has 17 trains in operation per week, covering 1,500 inland points in 9 countries, making the connection across Europe more efficient and convenient.
Although the financial crisis made Greece’s development difficult, the Greek government provided important support by privatizing the national railway company to improve the efficiency of railway perations.
Greek President Prokopios Pavlopoulos has called the Port of Piraeus “an important hub through which China and Asia enter Europe”. “COSCO’s investment in the Port of Piraeus is a model of mutual benefits,” he has said.
The city of Piraeus basking in the sun
The two ancient civilizations, both industrious and courageous and culturally alike in essence, made their unique contributions to the world thousands of years ago. Thousands of years later, their concerted efforts have created new legends.
The Port of Piraeus is one of the top 50 ports in the world, the largest in Greece and the second largest in the Mediterranean. It is the deepest port in Europe closest to the Far East. It is a transit port through which ships sail to the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Black Sea. Its sea and land traffic go to the Balkans, the Black Sea, Southern Europe, Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
COSCO won the bid for 35 years’ franchise right to container Terminals II and III of the port, and Piraeus Container Terminal S.A. (PCT), a wholly owned subsidiary of COSCO, was incorporated to operate the terminals.
Soon after, PCT refurbished Terminal II, and constructed the eastern side of Terminal III and the western side.
In 2016, COSCO and the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund of Greece signed a memorandum of understanding, which gave COSCO majority shares in the Port of Piraeus.