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Greece – number one in the Mediterranean

A nation of seafarers from the start

With 15,000 kilometers of coastline, 7,000 of them covered with sand, and over 3,000 islands – Greece captivates with its unique geographic location in the eastern Mediterranean. It’s not surprising that the people at Europe’s southern tip have been considered skilled seafarers and merchants since antiquity and already left significant marks in the entire Mediterranean area in early times. Join us in taking a look at this country, at prominent shipping families and the port of Piraeus – and learn why the latter is considered a Chinese beachhead in Europe.

Cradle of European culture

Ancient Greece is considered the place where European culture originated. Several thousand years ago, Greece shaped European society with its achievements. Attic democracy represents the start of our political governments; philosophy, art and literature continue to be firmly established in the Germanic, Romanic and Scandinavian languages. Authors such as Homer, philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates created the first literary masterpieces of western civilization. Mathematics, natural sciences and architecture were also highly esteemed in ancient Greece and many significant technical discoveries date from this time. The ancient Greeks are even credited with inventing cranes, which changed the world of transport and logistics

Tourism hotspot with matching infrastructure

The Mediterranean climate, culinary specialties and millennia of history – all these factors make Greece so attractive to so many tourists. A total of about 34 million tourists were recorded in 2019, which makes Greece the 17th most frequently visited country in the world. The Greek capital Athens alone drew 6.3 million visitors. The tourism sector brings in more than 20.5 billion euros, which represents about 12.4 percent of the annual gross domestic product.

Greek infrastructure has advanced accordingly: the mainland has a well-developed road network of 117,000 km, even if the quality of the roads often varies greatly between the individual regions. The situation on the Greek islands is inherently different. Most of the traffic here is handled by buses, numerous ferry connections and the many tourist airports. After all, no less than 1,308 commercial ports and 82 airports are in service to transport people and goods.

Railroad with potential

In contrast to other European countries, railroads in Greece only played a minor role as a mode of transport for many years. This was for two reasons: on the one hand, the mountainous topography of the mainland would require major investments in rail construction. On the other, many of the important tourist centers are on the islands. In the meantime, the most strategic connections are being renovated and brought back into shape while old tracks in metric gauge are being converted to standard gauge. Along the Piraeus-Thessaloniki rail line in particular, the modernization has resulted in a substantial increase in the number of passengers. Rail is now considered the fastest means of transport here.

Nonetheless, experts still see a great need for improvement, particularly in terms of freight transport. It isn’t easy to find efficient cargo terminals that facilitate transshipment and multimodal transport in Greece. The country currently only has two central terminals, in the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki. At the moment, all attention is eagerly focused on the “Thriasio” multimodal freight depot project in Athens, which will significantly improve freight transport by rail. The project will be completed in 2021 and will be easily accessible via expressway and rail connections, located between the port of Piraeus and Athens International Airport.

Electrification of the country’s main routes is not fully completed yet, either. Currently there are efforts to electrify the rail section between the Ikonio terminal in Piraeus and the Idomeni border crossing to northern Macedonia. The same is true for the route between Thessaloniki and the Kulata border crossing to Bulgaria. Expanding the infrastructure would facilitate rail freight transport through Greece, increase the tonnage of trains and at the same time it would reduce the carbon footprint.

A shipping country through and through

Greece has always been known as a shipping country – even in ancient times, they busily traded along the known sea routes. But they also left distinctive traces as colonialists in the Mediterranean. Many important Mediterranean port cities are considered ancient Greek establishments. As such, seafaring is an inextricable element of Greek identity and deeply engrained in its people’s roots. Even early on, it was obvious that Greeks would take advantage of their favorable location, along with the potential which seafaring offered to a small country. So it isn’t surprising that the Greeks have preserved their seaworthiness to this day.

But the “global era” of the Greek ship trade didn’t fully get off the ground until the end of the Second World War. Influential family businesses such as that of Aristoteles Socrates Onassis were already continuously expanding their shipping companies in 1930 with the support of the Greek state, but the end of the war clearly provided them with a significant boost.

Liberty ships give rise to ship owner dynasties

That was when Greek shipping companies were able to buy more than 100 large Liberty freighters from the United States at minimal prices. These Liberty freighters were produced by the thousands to send supplies to the allies or the many battle locations and had been operating all around the world. However, after 1945 many of them were no longer needed for military supplies. Their sale paved the way for the Greek shipping empires.

In the last 80 years, the Greek merchant fleet has continued to expand, and the shipping routes have been further developed. To date, Greek shipping companies own the most important merchant fleet in the world and are thus considered big players in the maritime trade. About 21 percent of the world’s merchant fleet and even 53 percent of the European merchant fleet are owned by Greek shipping dynasties. This corresponds to a total of more than 5,500 ships and an alleged value of over 90 billion dollars. Major Greek ship owners or carriers such as Onassis, Niarchos, Livanos, Thenamaris and Maran Tankers have held and continue to hold top positions in worldwide trade. Unsurprisingly, merchant shipping thus accounts for around 16 percent of Greece’s entire economic performance.

Number one in the Mediterranean: Piraeus

The port of Piraeus near Athens and the Thessaloniki port in the north are the two most important ports in the country. While the largest Greek port in terms of physical size is in Thessaloniki, Piraeus is considered the most significant logistics hub in Europe’s southeast trading area. This claim is not surprising – after all, Piraeus was already known as the historic port of Athens in antiquity. At the same time, the industrial center also marks the southern terminal of the major transport links which cross the country from Thessaloniki or Patras.

Located eight kilometers from Athens, Piraeus is now considered the number one port in the entire Mediterranean region when it comes to handling containers. According to financial figures, about 5.65 million TEU were loaded in Piraeus in 2019. This is an increase of 21 percent compared to 2018. Only in the past coronavirus year did the transshipment volume drop to 5.43 million TEU – yet the port still managed to stay at the top.

Those who lament this decline should keep one thing in mind: ten years earlier, the annual transshipment volume was only a comparatively low 433,582 TEU. As a result, 2019 was not only the most successful year since then but also the time when it surpassed the port in Valencia. Despite the global economic turbulences caused by the pandemic, the country has wanted to maintain its pole position and is consistently pursuing its investment and expansion plans. The guarantors for potential terminal increases and new port infrastructure are the new owners from China.

The head of the dragon in Europe

The reason why the port of Piraeus is flourishing, of course, is that it was taken over by the Chinese. The Greek harbor was already transferred into the hands of the Chinese shipping company COSCO in 2008, even if only as a lease. Eight years after the first contract was signed, the majority of the port company followed with a 51 percent share and another 16 percent are already firmly planned for 2021. It may have started as a fairly sleepy port, but under the leadership of COSCO, it has rapidly risen to the top of the European harbors.

Another consequence of this is that the port of Piraeus is now used as China’s gateway to Europe. Piraeus is the first port of call for tankers or cargo ships after they have passed through the Suez Canal. From here, the goods are loaded onto other means of transport and distributed further to Eastern Europe by land. To ensure that this can be processed at top speed, a Super-Post Panamax quay crane was installed at Pier 1, which will be able to handle mega-ships with a capacity of 20,000 TEU in the future.

Major projects in the pipeline

Business with China has long been considered the driving force behind the above-average sales of the Greek shipping industry. The port has also established itself as one of the most important hubs along the “new Silk Road.” Numerous additional Chinese expansion plans and loan financing for road and railway infrastructure projects in the Balkans should also be considered in this context. Clearly, it takes more than an efficient port to also bring the goods into the backcountry.

It remains to be seen whether some of the major projects will be delayed after the coronavirus slump. There is the Sea2Sea corridor, for example, an electrified rail link that will offer a train connection between the ports of northeastern Greece and those of the Black Sea and further along the Danube. This project is considered a visionary initiative for combined freight transport. In the Greek section, the project cost is estimated at 2.5 billion euros. Or there is the expansion of the Athens airport with about 500 million euros. Or the northern road and rail bypass in Attica, which is becoming increasingly necessary in view of the rapid growth at the port of Piraeus. What comes next remains to be seen, since: “Pantha Rhei.”  Or “everything flows” – as the philosophers would say.

cargo-partner in Greece

cargo-partner decided to take up operations in Greece due to the country's excellent geostrategic position, being an important regional hub for sea transport and a major part of our Southeast European network. Our two offices in Thessaloniki and Piraeus complement our existing network in the region with warehouse and distribution sites in Sofia, Bulgaria (16,500 m² warehouse), Belgrade, Serbia (8,000 m² warehouse) and Skopje, North Macedonia.

Our experienced team in Greece offers an extensive range of air, sea and land transport solutions. With our offices in Greece, we have completed our setup in SEE and benefit from a fast connection to Greek ports, while our dense road transport network offers the ideal basis for further distribution of goods throughout Europe.