From Genoa to Trieste, the ports’ ignites Europe

Italy aims to develop its port facilities to meet the challenge of global trade.

The global trade landscape is undergoing a paradigm shift. The Chinese Silk Road appears to be losing momentum, especially concerning its initial promise to involve Europe in a new large-scale infrastructure network for goods and people. Meanwhile, conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East are rewriting routes and trade balances.

As of now, Europe’s response lies in the hands of individual state initiatives. While Germany is heavily investing in the development of the Port of Hamburg and its capacity to become an intermodal hub, Italy is focusing on the development of its port facilities, leveraging its privileged geographical position on the peninsula.

Notably, Trieste and La Spezia, currently the first and second Italian ports for the quantity of goods transported by rail, have been under the watchful eye of Beijing for years. Genoa aims to close its gap by completing the Third Giovi Valley, a high-speed/high-capacity railway connecting Genoa and its port to Milan and then to the rest of Europe.

Simultaneously, the major ports in the central and southern regions, such as Civitavecchia and Gioia Tauro, continue to grow. Civitavecchia has long been competing with Barcelona for supremacy among Mediterranean tourist ports, while Gioia Tauro serves as a natural gateway for goods from North Africa and the Atlantic.

The development of these ports in the coming years will be crucial for supporting the Italian economy, which, like that of other European partners, must increasingly contend with major ports to meet the challenge of growth.

Italy, a natural port

With a coastline stretching 7,456 kilometers and a central position in the Mediterranean, Italy holds a strategic position in global trade. The Mediterranean alone accounts for 30% of global maritime transport, and Italy, with its 58 ports, aims to intercept a significant share of it. In contrast, the structure of maritime trade in Northern European countries concentrates around a few ports, with Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Antwerp alone intercepting 70% of maritime transport for their respective countries. Currently, Italy handles 10 million TEUs of container traffic, equivalent to the volume at the Port of Rotterdam.

On one hand, Italy has a great opportunity due to its natural geographical position; on the other hand, it faces a gap to bridge with its Northern European competitors. Part of the solution may come from the funds allocated by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP), which plans to invest 9.2 billion euros in Italian ports, a quarter of which will be dedicated to improving maritime traffic accessibility through renovations and dredging to accommodate large ships.

Among the significant projects in this regard is the construction of the New Foranea Dam in Genoa, a massive undertaking led by the Webuild Group. This project, combined with the Genoa Node connected by the Third Giovi Valley, will accelerate the city’s commercial development, allowing Genoa to reclaim its past status as a major transport hub.

Ports as an engine for the Italian economy

Developing ports means developing the economy. Besides EU guidelines, this axiom is confirmed by data. According to the Srm study center linked to the Intesa Sanpaolo Group, Italy’s maritime logistics, in its entirety, accounts for 9% of the national GDP. In addition to goods, Italian ports handled 61.3 million passengers in 2022, including 9 million cruisers. Moreover, 40% of the total national import-export, equivalent to 377 billion euros, passes through Italian ports.

The centrality of these infrastructures is evident, as is the challenge that Italian ports will have to engage in the coming years, primarily within Europe. This challenge extends not only to Northern ports but also to African ones, such as the Moroccan port of Tanger Med, currently boasting the highest container handling capacity in the Mediterranean and one of the world’s most dynamic free zones.

Italy in search of its leadership

In the chessboard of maritime trade, the Mediterranean plays an increasingly central role compared to the North Sea. Between 2008 and 2021, the share of European container traffic intercepted by northern ports decreased from 46% to 38%, while that of Mediterranean ports grew from 35% to 44%. This context represents a great opportunity for Italian ports, which in 2023 confirmed their leadership in short-range maritime traffic within Europe, handling 14% of goods passing through the continent. This places Italy ahead of the Netherlands (13.5%), Spain (10%), and France (7%) in this specific sector.

Italian ports also exhibit a strong inclination toward intermodality, particularly the relationship between maritime and rail transport. Like the case of the Third Giovi Valley, major Italian infrastructures can foster the country’s growth in this sector, reducing waiting times for goods in ports. Currently, goods in Italian ports wait an average of 1.34 days, compared to 0.62 days in the Netherlands and 0.9 days in Spain. Having more modern, faster, and efficient connection infrastructures will help reduce these times, adding another competitive factor to the country’s system and contributing to the conquest of new market shares in international trade.