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SA ports weathering pandemic storm


Cruise ships may have disappeared from South Australian waters in the wake of COVID-19 but there is no slowing the number of container vessels gliding into our ports.

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Marine pilots are now heavily kitted out in safety masks and gloves as they board those cargo and container ships to guide them into dock at 10 commercial ports across the state.

Ship crews are also being forced to stay on board, despite having been at sea for many weeks.

“South Australia has been a lot more resilient than we maybe anticipated at the beginning of all of this,” Stewart Lammin said from the wharves at Port Adelaide.

“I would say there’s been about a 10 per cent reduction in import trade and exports are maybe down a couple of per cent, but that’s partly because of agricultural production, with the grain harvest being down last season.”

Importantly, there has not been a single COVID-19 case reported among the teams working at the coalface of international ship arrivals.

Lammin is chief executive officer of Flinders Port Holdings, the company that oversees seven of the state’s shipping ports, including the busiest at Outer Harbor.

He is well aware of the impact on the state’s economy if the ports that handle $25 billion of trade each year were forced to shut down from a virus outbreak.

When the first COVID-19 cases emerged in South Australia, Lammin said the company set its pandemic plan into action, sending 70 administration and head office staff to work from home.

Vital protective gear was sourced so the business’s remaining 620 staff could continue working on the frontline in ports across the state.

New shifts kept staff in protected clusters with no overlap time between rostered hours – so if cases emerged in one shift the others were protected from contact and could continue working.

What the shutdown has shown Lammin is that South Australia is resilient.

Its exports revolve around products in demand during a crisis, grain, minerals and wine, and Lammin said it has buoyed confidence in a tough global market.

“I think there’s a bit more optimism in how South Australia is going to recover from this, we’re a bit more comfortable that trade will continue to flow,” he said.

That does not mean it has been business as usual.

Imports have slowed, triggered first by supply issues and then followed by falling demand in consumer goods as the state shut down and spending was put on hold.

“On the bulk side of imports, the impact from COVID is probably most around fuel imports, there was less demand and planes are not flying so aviation fuel is not as required,” Lammin said.

Early on, supply problems emerged with deliveries of consumer goods that usually arrived from China, including whitegoods, furniture and clothing, stopping as factories closed under lockdown.

“In April that came back a little. but as China came back on line there was not as much demand while South Australians worked from home, my sense is that in June it will come back a little bit stronger,” Lammin said.

“You do see a spike when people were locked away at home and there was a little bit more demand for imported goods around the home office with desks and laptops.”

Income from the cruise ship industry has taken a hit, the industry faltering globally as cruise ships emerged as hotspots in spreading the virus.

Timing of the COVID-19 lockdowns at the end of the cruise ship season helped in tempering its impact on an industry that delivered more than $145 million to the South Australian economy in 2018 and 2019.

Now, the domestic cruise ship industry is likely to fire back up first.

Nick Jones, who is the executive director of destination development at the South Australian Tourism Commission, said 60 per cent of the 82 cruise visits in South Australia in the 2018-19 season were domestic.

The cruise ships were full of Australians seeing Australia.

“It’s expected that the first return of cruise will be domestic cruising, and we’ve been planning to make sure South Australia is well-primed to make the most of that and that all entry points into the state are COVID compliant and follow best practices for infection control and prevention,” he said.

Jones said the commission was working with Flinders Port Authority, with Cruise Lines International Association Australia and the Australian Cruise Association during the off-season to get the industry up and running.

He said cruises from Adelaide to regional ports like Kangaroo Island and Port Lincoln would inject much-needed life and money into local businesses and communities.

“When a cruise ship visits a regional community, it injects millions of dollars to local businesses,” he said.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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