HONG Kong Seaport Alliance's terminal operators are looking at their refrigerated facilities to ward off fierce competition from mainland China in an effort to regain its lost crown as the world's busiest shipping hub.
An example of this efficiency at play is how a container of freshly harvested Chilean cherries can arrive at the city's Kwai Tsing Container Terminals and be distributed at wholesale markets in Guangzhou within five hours, reports Hong Kong's SCMP.
According to Modern Terminals Limited (MTL) group managing director Horace Lo Wai-man, this was possible after all but one terminal operator banded together and came up with a capacity of more than 7,800 refrigerated containers, twice that of rivals in southern China.
"From going through customs inspection to a truck's arrival at Guangzhou, it takes four and a half hours," he said, noting that "in China, it takes a few hours alone for customs clearing."
The Hong Kong Seaport Alliance last October addressed concerns of the city's antitrust watchdog, the Competition Commission, by putting in place commitments to ensure a level playing field at the port.
The alliance comprising MTL, Hongkong International Terminals, Cosco-HIT Terminals (Hong Kong) and Asia Container Terminals jointly operate and manage their 23 berths across eight terminals at the Kwai Tsing port. The fifth operator Goodman DP World is not part of the alliance.
Lo said the competition with mainland ports over cold-chain services was punishing even though the business was seasonal.
"The Chinese ports in the region are looking at this business, if Hong Kong falls behind in efficiency, the business may go to their ports," he said. "Hong Kong is the first port in the Pearl River Delta when a ship comes in. If it has to go further north, it will take an extra few hours."
Hong Kong was ranked No 8 in 2019 among the world's busiest ports after falling for the first time out of the top five in 2018. About HKD3 billion (US$387 million) worth of produce is shipped annually to Kwai Tsing. Of this, 60 per cent is transported to the mainland, according to Mr Lo.
Fresh fruits products commonly shipped in by sea included durians from Thailand, cherries from Chile, kiwis from Australia as well as a range of fruit from Asian countries.
In the first nine months of 2020, there was a 48 per cent jump in durian imports, to 27,000 TEU handled by the alliance, compared with the same period in 2019.
Mr Lo said the higher port call frequencies by ships in Hong Kong made the city more competitive. For example, there were more than 30 weekly calls between Thailand and Hong Kong, which helped boost durian shipments from Southeast Asian countries by 35 per cent in the first eight months of this year.
Leo Lai, general manager of fruit importer and retailer Tung Shing Fresh Fruits, said the company primarily brought in the produce such as Japanese apples and peaches by sea and found the Kwai Tsing port more efficient.
"There are more ships calling on the Hong Kong port than to other ports in southern China, which means I can pick up the fruits faster, put them on the market sooner and hence sell them at higher prices," he said. "For fruits with a shorter shelf life, we will fly them in."