Cargo volume at the San Pedro Bay Complex has continued its downward trend — but the cruise industry at the Port of Los Angeles is experiencing a post-pandemic revival.
That was the message Thursday, Feb. 16, during POLA Executive Director Gene Seroka’s monthly press conference. Appearing with him this month was John Padgett, president of Princess Cruises, which plans to expand operations in the Port of Los Angeles.
The port had 229 cruise calls last year and expects that number to grow following a near shutdown of the industry during the pandemic.
Cargo numbers, meanwhile, continue to lag.
“As expected, January was soft,” Seroka said of the last month’s cargo volumes that totaled 726,014 twenty-foot equivalent units, the industry measurement standard.
That’s 16% off last year’s record pace for the same month, Seroka said.
Specifically, imports sank by 13% compared to January 2022, he added. But exports experienced a “mini-bump” — with January’s total 2.5% more than the same month last year.
“But (exports are) still 22% off” the port’s five-year average, Seroka said.
The Port of Long Beach also reported continued cargo dips in January, with dockworkers and terminal operators moving 573,772 TEUs, down 28.4% from the same month last year, which was also that port’s busiest January on record.
Imports decreased 32.3% and exports declined 14.2% in Long Beach. The downturn there was attributed to “softened consumer spending, increased prices driven by inflation and a shift in trade routes.”
At the Port of Los Angeles, compared to January 2022 — the port’s “best start ever” — “a lot has changed,” Seroka said.
“We expect softer global trade throughout the first quarter,” he said, “particularly compared to last year’s record-breaking start.”
Factories in Asia, he said, have had extended Lunar New Year closures, while warehouses here are still full, prompting retailers to offer discounts. The uncertain economy hasn’t helped, Seroka said.
But there are also longer trends that have been ongoing for about 20 years, impacting the overall cargo routes in the U.S., he said.
Cargo owners, for example, have told the port it’s too expensive, Seroka said, while more complicated and potentially volatile labor union relationships on the West Coast have dampened confidence. And then there is the growing competition among Gulf and East Coast ports, which have been successful in outpacing West Coast ports in getting funding for infrastructure improvements from Washington, D.C.
Among the factors impacting shipments for a while, Seroka said, are:
“(East Coast) ports have partnered with elected officials for infrastructure improvements,” Seroka said.
From 2010 to 2020, he added, “we got left behind in federal investment.”
East Coast ports, he said, received more than $11 billion in funding during that time span while West Coast ports received $1.2 billion.
“L.A.,” he said, “should be at the top of that list.”
As for the labor issue, Seroka stressed there have been no actions during the current collective bargaining period that have slowed down the docks. The last time the union went on strike, he added, was in the early 1970s.
But the lack of an agreement remains a problem.
“We need this collective bargaining agreement in place,” Seroka said.
Seroka said he anticipates that to happen sometime this spring.
The executive director, meanwhile, continues crisscrossing the nation to woo business back to the West Coast, stressing that the port offers fast service and plenty of available dock space now that the congestion has cleared, Seroka said.
“Though some of that cargo may be lost for good,” he said, “with the capacity on our docks today, we’re ready to unlock new levels of value and service at the Port of Los Angeles.”
Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero, for his part, said in a written statement last week that the Long Beach port is “taking aggressive steps to meet a new set of challenges for the new year.”
“I remain optimistic,” Cordero said, “that we will recapture market share and develop projects that will enhance long-term growth, sustainable operations and the reliable movement of goods through the Port of Long Beach.”
Asked if the Port of Los Angeles, in light of its draft request for proposals for a new cruise terminal issued Jan. 31, was turning more toward the passenger cruise industry to help make up for the cargo lags, Seroka said the leisure cruise industry has long been one of the port’s key platforms in its business model.
Now, he said, that appears to be ripe to expand.
“By the end of this fiscal year, on June 30,” he said, “we’re expected to cross that 1 million passenger mark.”
Seroka said 250 cruise ship calls are set for the current calendar year, a sign that the industry is on an upswing that is expected to benefit the port.
The port’s connection to the cruise industry was cemented in the 1970s, Seroka said, with the original “Love Boat” television series that was filmed at the Port of L.A.
The pandemic mostly shuttered the industry, however, and stopped L.A.’s plan at that time to build a new cruise terminal in San Pedro’s Outer Harbor. That effort has now been relaunched — and also includes bids being sought to remodel the existing Berth 93 terminal.
“There’s no doubt the Port of Los Angeles needs a new terminal,” Padgett said. “It can’t come soon enough.”
With ships getting “bigger and bigger,” he said, more space is needed.
The company, Padgett added, also is looking toward ships that are more environmentally sustainable and will introduce LNG technology — or liquefied natural gas — into the line for more “carbon efficient,” though not yet carbon neutral, operations.
With cruise business ticking up at last after the pandemic, Seroka said, “we thought it was the appropriate time” to seek out “great thinkers” to help plan and support the port’s new and growing passenger cruise accommodations.
The port will look for investors and designers to move forward with the plans, he said.
One way to free up more cruise space is a plan to relocate the Battleship USS Iowa to the Southern Pacific Slip, Seroka said.
The location would put the Iowa closer to the new West Harbor waterfront attraction now under construction and set to open in late 2024.
But there’s no reported timeline for a move, which would require dredging and other extensive preparations. It is expected to cost about $20 million.
The floating tourist attraction is also in the process of creating a Surface Navy Museum that would include a pier side building and park, Seroka said.
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