There are factors that primarily attract or distract users to a port. Port users are primarily ocean shipping lines, airlines, freight forwarders, importers, and exporters. Others who carry out businesses in the port include haulage companies, barge and lighterage operators and ship chandlers. In addition to these companies, there are others who by their roles are involved in port activities. These include Customs officials, government regulatory agencies, cargo surveyors and ship repair companies.
Every port user and those that work in the port expect an environment where business can be carried out with ease and in a safe manner. This is basically what is required to attract users. Every port needs to attract carriers and the cargoes they seek. A port must be profitable to meet its needs, and to achieve this it must upgrade and maintain its facilities. On the sides of the users (especially the primary user) there are specific areas that make the port attractive. Where there are alternative choices available to them, they would choose those ports that meet their needs and where they find comfort.
I shall now examine the features which make ports attractive or unattractive to its users. My focus would be more on seaports and terminals. This is because the systems for handling freight are much more complex at the seaports. In addition, the seaports have a variety of berths and terminals for special types of cargoes. They include the following:
Deepwater at entrance channel and at the berths: The sizes of most ocean-going vessels are continually increasing, making ports with shallow entrances and quaysides difficult to access. Vessels need to easily get into ports and berths safely. So as ships get bigger, so will port continue to dredge channels and approaches as well as the berths.
Tidal variations and effect on draft: If the periodic change of sea level at a port is erratic and does not give enough time for high tide to remain, this can restrict the movement of vessels, especially where there is a long river passage.
Climatic factors: Some ports are affected more by weather than others. Depending on the location of the port, adverse weather such as ice, fog and typhoon can disrupt the flow of vessel traffic.
Size of runways and aprons: This applies to airports and can hugely affect the type of aircraft that can land at an airport. If the runways and aprons are small, big aircraft cannot be handled at such airport.
Number and types of runways, berths and terminals: If there are enough berths and runways, then waiting time for vessels and aircraft will be less. It eliminates congestion which occurs when there is insufficient capacity to meet demand at peak periods. Absence of congestion enables faster turnaround time for ships and aircraft. Lack of congestion also makes it unnecessary for carriers to impose congestion surcharge on cargo which causes higher freight.
Sufficient storage yard and facilities for special cargo: Whether at an airport or the seaport, enough storage capacity attracts users because it means less congestion within the terminal and less difficulty in accessing cargo. Adequate storage space also eliminates waiting time for vessel or aircraft to load or discharge cargo. When there is congestion within the terminal, the tendency is for containers or goods to be stacked haphazardly irrespective of carrying vessel or type of cargo causing block-stacking.
Adequate cargo handling equipment including those for special cargo: Inadequate equipment means that the port is less productive and delays can affect turnaround of vessels and aircraft. Cargo dwell time can also increase due to insufficient handling equipment and this can cause users to vary.
Location and access to road, rail and waterways plus the availability of transport services: The location of a port is paramount to its success. An ideal port is one which can be approached easily from the waterside as well as the landside. The landside should have a well-developed transport network of all the modes. Rail connections from the hinterland to any port have proven to be an efficient and effective way to distribute cargo.
Productivity and labour issues: Any port with a record of high throughput and productivity is always regarded as a good port and carriers are always attracted to it. On the other hand, ports where there are labour disputes, strikes, etc, usually have aircraft and ships diverted from them. While some ports work a few hours, others work round the clock. Oftentimes users are attracted to the ports that have more working hours.
Competitive tariff: Operational costs of running shipping lines and airlines can sometimes be high. Therefore, carriers are always looking for places where port charges are competitive and within certain levels. This also applies to cargo owners who must sell their goods at a reasonable price. Cargo related charges at some terminals can be prohibitive and vary significantly, with some terminals having high terminal handling charges than others.
Availability of modern technology: With the rapid improvement in technology, ports that constantly upgrade and acquire new technologies attract more customers. A good port should have an IT system that can provide real-time information about cargo flows and improve the utilization of port facilities. This also increases visibility and productivity with regards to operations planning and reporting procedures.
Availability of support services: One of the features of a good port is the availability of basic services within the port. These include freshwater supply, pilotage, bunkering, dry dock facilities, port health, fire, police and security services.
Efficient clearance procedures: Delays in getting goods out of most ports are usually due to cumbersome clearance procedures. Ports that have properly laid down operational procedures and documentation processes are customer-friendly, so the import/export community can depend on them.
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