Smooth sailing for PortMiami as it sets records for both cargo and cruise passengers in fiscal 2018

PortMiami set records for both cargo and cruise passengers in fiscal 2018.
PortMiami set records for both cargo and cruise passengers in fiscal 2018.

More than $1 billion in improvements at PortMiami seem to finally be paying off as the port notched record cargo and cruise passenger numbers in fiscal 2018.

The port, known as the cruise capital of the world, handled 5,592,000 cruise passengers and 1.084 million TEUs of cargo in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. (A TEU is the equivalent of a standard 20-foot container.) The port’s old cargo record of 1.054 million TEUs was set back in 2005.

Prospects are also looking up for fiscal 2019 with Royal Caribbean’s Terminal A, which will handle its new 6,690-passenger Symphony of the Seas, set to open in early November, and a new direct cargo route from the port to Brazil, possibly starting in the spring.

This summer the Miami-Dade Commission approved a memorandum of understanding with Geneva-based MSC Cruises to build another cruise terminal at the port. By the fall of 2019, Norwegian Cruise Line also plans to complete a new terminal.

“By 2020, we expect to surpass seven million cruise passengers,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Wednesday.

In recent years, Miami-Dade County has invested $1.3 billion in port improvements, including a port tunnel, installing post-Panamax cranes, rail connections from the port, and the widening and deepening of its shipping channels to handle the bigger ships that began transiting an expanded Panama Canal in the summer of 2016. Currently PortMiami is the only deep-water port south of Norfolk, Virginia.

“We’re starting to see the results of more than $1 billion of completed infrastructure and a port team that gets the job done,” Gimenez said. With the improvements, he said, cargo arriving in PortMiami can reach 70 percent of the U.S. population in three to four days.

Since the port deepened its shipping channels, he said, 250 post-Panamax vessels that wouldn’t have been able to fit before the dredging or to be unloaded before the installation of larger cranes have called in Miami.

In the early 2000s, the port was accustomed to posting cargo records, but the years 2006 through 2014 were disappointing ones for the port. The tide began to turn in 2015 when PortMiami once again topped the one million TEU mark.

“Now we’re looking to expand both the cargo and passenger business even more, because the more we expand, the more jobs that are created,” said Gimenez. The problem, he said, is “we are getting close to capacity; we’re running out of space.”

The seawall along the northeastern side of the port could be extended to accommodate more ships, he said. But Gimenez said he didn’t anticipate the county would undertake such an expansion unless it already had a committed port user for the extra berths.

Port Director Juan Kuryla said the Army Corps of Engineers is also studying the feasibility of widening the south channel by 100 feet and dredging a small portion of the channel to a depth of 54 feet at the entrance to the port. As the ever-bigger ships that are being built enter the port, they need to accelerate, which makes them sit deeper in the water, he said. Currently the port is dredged to a depth of 50 to 52 feet.

Environmentalists have complained, however, that some offshore coral is still buried by silt produced by the initial dredge.

During fiscal 2018, China was the top trading partner with PortMiami by a wide margin, followed by Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Costa Rica. El Salvador, Colombia, Panama, Jamaica, and Nicaragua rounded out the top 10 markets.

One of the keys to the port’s higher cargo numbers this past year, said Kuryla, is Seaboard Marine’s new, quicker nine-day route from the Peruvian ports of Paita and Callao to Guayaquil, Ecuador, and then on to Miami. “That has been a very successful route,” he said.

Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific trade also have been strong, he said. “We’re also excited by the growth we see from Vietnam,” Kuryla said.

Longer term, the port would like to see a route from Western Africa to Miami, he said. “We are interested in being one of the first eastern U.S. ports to have direct sailings from Africa.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi