Since the days of ancient Carthage, Tunisia has been hugely reliant on its ports to tap into foreign markets. Even today it conducts 96% of its foreign trade by sea. As a result, the country has a vast network of maritime-related infrastructure. It has two container ports in Tunis and Sfax and seven smaller, specialised commercial ports. More than 27m tonnes of goods transit through Tunisian ports annually. Radès Port in La Goulette, Tunis is by far the country’s largest port, handling approximately 80% of containerised traffic and movement of goods on rolling units, with traffic of over 300,000 twenty-foot equivalent units per year. Efforts to upgrade Tunisia’s ports have, hence, centred on Radès, which in recent years has grappled with bottlenecks – and as a result costs the economy up to €271.9m annually.
Radès Port was built in 1987 for roll on-roll off (ro-ro) vessels designed to carry wheeled cargo. As Radès began receiving lift on-lift off (lo-lo) container cargo, however, it added mobile cranes. Today Radès Port possesses seven mobile cranes. Unlike ports designed to handle lo-lo container cargo, though, Radès does not have large, fixed cranes. This mixing of ro-ro and lo-lo traffic at Radès Port has proven a serious impediment to efficiency, as the port is not optimised for either form of traffic. Processing represents another challenge. Dwell time at Radès averages over 15 days, which raises inventory costs. Shipping companies operating at Radès Port told OBG clutter is common, with containers left on the port for long periods.
Worker productivity constitutes a third challenge, since the unit cost of labour at Radès is high compared to productivity. Unlike the vast majority of commercial ports in the Mediterranean, the Radès Port does not function for 24 hours per day. It also suffers long delays in loading and unloading cargo.
STAM, a public company, currently has a monopoly on container operations at Radès. The government is now working with STAM to move toward longer shifts and 24-hour operations, but “will probably need several months to go through,” Said Elhadi, a managing partner at Aesis Advisory, told OBG.
Similar moves in the past have proven difficult, with the port’s employees having gone on strike over the potential privatisation. The impact of the strikes – a not uncommon feature of Tunisia’s post-revolution economy, where economic inclusion and social justice are a concern – have cost Tunisia TD100m (€45.9m) in penalty fees to Europe since 2011. Members of UTICA, Tunisia’s employers’ association, have called on the government to curb shipping strikes by setting up a crisis unit.
The congestion at Radès has been a boon to the country’s other ports, however, with traffic at the Bizerte and Sfax ports increasing by 70% from 2010 to 2012. Yet infrastructural limitations at all three ports generated renewed interest in a long-dormant plan to build a deep-sea port especially for lo-lo container cargo at Enfidha, a coastal town approximately 50 km north of Sousse.
Though the Tunisian government began to consider building a deep-sea port at Enfidha over a decade ago, plans have yet to materialise. Financing the €906.4m project remains the main challenge. To render the Enfidha project feasible, the government would likely need to share the financing burden through an as yet undefined public-private partnership scheme. For now, the Ministry of Transport is focusing on reforming and expanding the Radès Port. It plans to expand the container yard at the port, and has ordered several rubber tyred-gantry cranes to facilitate container stacking. Such efforts are likely to increase productivity. Making Tunisia’s ports competitive over the long term, however, will require construction of a purpose-built deep-sea port and container facility at Enfidha and an improvement in productivity at Radès Port.
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