Despite initial concerns about the impact of COVID-19, Swire Shipping’s data shows only a marginal reduction in freight volumes. Alistair Skingley, the company’s Country Manager for Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, tells Business Advantage PNG that the company is upgrading its offerings in the expectation of solid growth in 2021.
Business Advantage PNG (BAPNG): What new services will Swire be offering?
Alistair Skingley: We have an upgrade of the NAX (North Asia Express) service out of China. It comes down from China, into PNG, then into Australia – Townsville – and then back to China. We have improved the service frequency by adding another vessel. It will now be a fixed day, fortnightly service into PNG – the first product into PNG that does this. It will be in Lae every other Sunday, and in Motukea, Port Moresby, the following Friday.
‘Despite the negativity surrounding COVID and its impact on PNG, the volumes coming into PNG – and it is an import-dominant market – have not been impacted as much as the rest of the world.’
The other interesting development we are quite excited about is that we are going to deploy three of our newest vessels on this service. The first vessel due on Sunday 22 November is the Lae Chief. In total, we are building eight new vessels: four 2450 TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Units) and four 2750 TEU.
BAPNG: Is that a counter-cyclical move?
Skingley: We have effectively six services coming into PNG and we have been building a more regular product for some time. With the delivery of these new vessels, we see this as the right time to do this. It is a little bit counter-intuitive, but I have got to say that, despite the negativity surrounding COVID and its impact on PNG, the volumes coming into PNG – and it is an import-dominant market – have not been impacted as much as the rest of the world.
The data shows a year-to-date decrease from 2019 over the same period of just under two per cent. If you consider this in quarters, Q1 was actually quite high before Covid-19 hit us. Q2 was pretty static as customers considered their supply chain planning around Covid-19; we didn’t see a huge move up or down. Q3 was a problem; we were down significant volumes across the board. But Q4 is looking promising. Overall, for the year-to-date the volumes are following our forecasts.
BAPNG: How does this compare with the region?
Skingley: If we look at the rest of the Pacific, volumes are down overall. Primarily because what goes into the Pacific is largely related to the tourism industry, which has been decimated. The PNG market doesn’t rely on tourism as a primary driver, so volumes are not that impacted by Covid.
‘The import-export ratio is about six-to-one, with six times more containers coming in than out’
We have seen reductions in certain areas though, primarily because of the Porgera mine being shut down. Porgera will hopefully reopen in Q1 and we are hopeful that Wafi-Golpu and the LNG projects will start moving in 2021. If these projects were to go ahead, you would start to see a different composition of cargo mix, with more project and construction materials coming into the country. If you look at the 2012 LNG boom, this almost happened overnight.
BAPNG: Has the composition of imports and exports changed?
Skingley: No. Primarily imports are consumer goods, food products, supermarket supplies and building materials. In 2020, it is much the same. The import-export ratio is about six-to-one, with six times more containers coming in than out. It makes the country import-dominant. Exports tend to be minerals, concentrates, a small volume of agricultural products and the movement of empty containers to load ports.
‘We are also investing heavily on the digital side. Key to our success going forward will be “saving our customers’ time”.’
The country is very fertile and there is the opportunity with all these agri-products – coffee, cocoa and timber – to see agri-exports grow. We are looking to attract these export volumes to offset some of the downward trend. This will provide a more balanced and sustainable export market for us.
BAPNG: What other initiatives are you looking at?
Skingley: One of our other new offerings is the SEA service out of South East Asia into this region. What we are doing there is including a Motukea Port Moresby call. This is new to the SEAS service and will improve the frequency and transit times.
We are confident there will be growth and it is necessary to deploy larger tonnage. Four of our new vessels will be delivered in the near future.
We are also investing heavily on the digital side. Key to our success going forward will be ‘saving our customers’ time’. To this end, we have built a digital team to create an e-commerce platform that will be fully integrated with our operating systems.
On the back of that, we will start adding value to our customers so they have more associated products to choose from and more opportunity to engage with us positively. Supporting this initiative, we have made significant improvements in the way our customer service team engages with our customers. We have rolled out dedicated customer service platforms across our network.
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