Earlier in September, Maersk Line, the world’s largest container line and a customer of the Port of Halifax, took delivery of the Emma Maersk and started a new era in an age of big ships. It is unlikely the 11,000 TEU (20-foot-equivalent containers) vessel, the largest container ship in the world, will call on Halifax, but it is a further sign the global container business is changing and the Port of Halifax is working to ensure it is ready to accommodate these and similar mammoth carriers.

Vessels like the Emma Maersk are being built to handle the burgeoning cargo coming from region’s of the world such as the Far East and India. China continues to build its cargo volumes and build deep water ports with multi-super-post Panamax crane terminals to move millions of TEUs annually with continued double-digit grow. In 2005, the ports of Hong Kong and Shanghai moved more than 40 million TEUs alone with numerous other ports building their own impressive cargo numbers fed on huge manufacturing facilities and the need for raw materials.

Over the next five to seven years, cargo from the Far East is expected to double with about 35 per cent of the cargo destined for North America. India is not far behind with its growing manufacturing power and let’s not forget about traditional trading partners in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. Halifax continues to position itself to attract more business from these regions. It has had a particular focus on the Far East and the India subcontinent and has been selling itself in those regions, through trade missions, as an alternative port to North American markets through the Suez Canal.

The Halifax Port Authority argues that as North America’s West Coast ports continue to get busier, reducing their available capacity and straining inland infrastructure, and as the Panama Canal approaches its capacity limits, the Suez becomes a more attractive corridor for shipping lines. Further, the Panama Canal has vessel size restrictions and cannot handle vessels over 13 containers wide, whereas the Suez can handle the largest ships.

There are proposed plans to widen the Panama but that actual work is years and billions of dollars away. All of this makes Halifax attractive for many reasons. It has some of the deepest berths on the Eastern Seaboard; it is the closest port on the North American East Coast for vessels moving through the Suez; its has post-Panamax capability with both its container terminals employing super post-Pamamax cranes; it has a solid work force; it has direct inland rail and road connections to central Canada and the American Mid-west; and it has ondock and rail capacity.

Earlier this year the port demonstrated its ability to handle post-Panamax ships when OOCL, a member of the Grand Alliance, began calling Halifax with 5,700 TEU vessels. In 2005, Halifax handled 550,462 TEUs and with its present capability can handle 1.2 million without any immediate required expansion.

Halifax Port Authority president Karen Oldfield says Halifax’s goal is to capture more of this Suez traffic, but it will require considerable effort.

“We aren’t talking field of dreams here. Not a field of dreams by a long shot,” she said earlier this year.

“Just because we have capacity, just because we have great access to the highly lucrative central North American markets, just because we have deep, ice-free waters and just because we have a great location, doesn’t mean container ships will just keep coming. We have to work at it every single day. We have to be very clear with our message and we have to keep saying it over and over.”

Oldfield, along with other port officials, has traveled to India, the Far East and Europe, to deliver the Halifax message. It all takes time.

“We see that we are starting to gain some traction with global shipping lines and freight owners but in terms of relationship building we are still in the very early stages. Because, and this is a very important, we aren’t the only port traveling to Asia, India, Europe and elsewhere trying to attract business,” she says.

In her speech to a conference on ‘Atlantica’ in Fredericton, she said Halifax reaching its goals is not only important for the port and the province, but to the economy of the entire region.

“It is incredibly important that we continue to find ways to work together as a region. Because if we compete amongst ourselves our message gets fragmented,” she said.

“The global shipping industry is highly competitive and to capture a bigger piece of the international trade pie we need to be very deliberate, very focused and continually demonstrate our ability to do the job that we say we can do.”

The port president said one of Halifax’s goals is to be as busy as the West Coast Port of Vancouver but without the congestion.

“One of our goals, as I said, is to become the Vancouver of the East Coast where eventually there will be a need to build other terminals. But we aren’t there yet and we can’t just build it believing they will come, but we can believe, in fact we must believe, that by working together we can and we will do it. Our region and our country are depending on us.”