The Changing Faces of Ports

This month’s EarthCare comes from Malta where I’m attending a conference focusing on how to have a sustainable future for ports.  While the focus was predominantly European, the changing fortunes of ports are consistent across the western world and very relevant for us here in Fremantle.

Once upon a time ports were the interface between a country and the rest of the world, ports were hubs of trade and finance, powerhouses of economic growth.  From byzantine times the great cities were port cities.  Containerisation, globalisation and cheap air travel has changed all that in a relatively short space of time.  Maritime workforces were slashed and localised support services closed down.  As a result many ports went into decline and all too many did not acknowledge their changing fortunes, or plan for a transition to alternative economic revenue.  Many lost their trade completely as new container facilities were built elsewhere, Fremantle faired better by keeping its working port status.

The Conference was told ports are not just a collection of buildings and historic ports are not just a collection of historic buildings, what is important is that they are complex systems with strong social bonds, in addition, the vibrancy and colour of port areas the world over attracts artists and performers.  This is a tangible advantage, if ports have one ace up their sleeves in a competitive metropolis it is that they tend to be bohemian and great places to live, work and play.  A transition from being an interface of trade and travel, to being an interface of culture is a step in the direction of resilience.  Fremantle is lucky enough to have strong arts, culture and heritage assets, people should be queuing up to live and work here.  They are not, because there is little or no good quality office space to attract their employers, this we need as a matter of urgency.

We hear in the media about the dire financial situation in Europe, but one needs to be there to fully understand the implications.  The whole room was under no illusions, if ports are to undergo a successful transition into the future, there has to be a new paradigm that is built on sustainable principles and cleaver technology, and the journey will be very difficult to finance.  For us on the fringes of a miming boom sourcing investment will be a bit easier, however the tools that were presented to us for setting a vision that has the best chance of success are still relevant.  While not going into detail, they were based on assessment of an area’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities put into a matrix of different visions to see which has the best chance of success.  It was also stressed that any vision needs to have horizons much further out than any electoral cycle.

So what about Malta I hear you ask?  It’s a place steeped in history and pre-history.  Unfortunately, due to the strategic location much of that history is based on conflict.  The City of Valetta, where I stayed is predominantly 16 & 17 centaury.  The artworks in the Baroque interiors give one goose bumps.  However, they are suffering a crisis in their tourism industry, in my opinion because they do not target their advantages.  The vast numberof visitors come either on package deals looking for Beaches & Beer, or by cruise ships.  The Beach & Beer Brigade (BBB) are disappointed because there are better beaches and cheaper beer in Spain and the cruise ship passengers arrive at 8:00am and leave at 6:00pm, many do not even leave the ship, those that do, return to the ship for their meals as they are included in the price of the cruise.  The result is that 2 monstrous ships a day add little to the local economy.  Better to target to the smaller tourism trade of culture, history and heritage, because there would still be enough to support the tourism industry and they would leave very happy, as I did.  As we discovered above, identify your strong points and have a long-term plan that capitalises on them.  Then a historic port can have resilience to succeed into the future.

Published in Fremantle herald 4 August 2012

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