Sri Lanka’s Colombo port sees jump in traffic amid Red Sea tensions

By Uditha Jayasinghe

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s Colombo port has seen a big jump in container volumes in recent weeks as vessels steering clear of tensions in the southern Red Sea have found it a convenient transit point, officials said on Tuesday.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have since November attacked ships in the Red Sea, part of a route that accounts for about 12% of the world’s shipping traffic, in what they say is an effort to support Palestinians in the war with Israel.

In response, some shipping companies have instructed vessels to sail around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, a slower and more expensive route.

Due to Colombo’s strategic location, stopping at the port gives ships convenient access to the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia, said Lal Weerasinghe, a senior official at the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).

“When ships come past South Africa, Colombo is the first hub they meet…Singapore is further away. So this is the easiest port to access,” Weerasinghe said.

Port of Colombo is a key port between Africa, the Middle East and East Asia and handled 6.94 million 20-foot equivalent unit (TEU) in 2023, a 2% jump for the year, SLPA data showed. In December, TEUs jumped 15% on year.

Over the last four to six weeks, shipping lines requested more berthing windows at the port’s three terminals and transhipment volumes from neighbouring India also grew, two terminal operators said.

“We typically handle about 5,000-5,500 TEUs (per day) but since late last year there has been an increase of about 1,000 TEUs per day,” said Weerasinghe.

“We were forced to decline requests from about four shipping lines to increase traffic because it would cause delays for existing customers.”

As much as 50% of the uptick is from Mediterranean Shipping Company, the leading container shipping company, Weerasinghe added.

Shipping companies are also increasingly using Colombo as a relaying port, sometimes offloading their entire cargo to a different ship, he added.

Vessel calls have risen at other Colombo port terminals too.

“There is a lot of transhipment from India. We are hoping increased traffic will help Colombo port edge closer to double-digit growth in the first quarter,” said an official from a privately-run terminal.

He declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

(Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly and Ros Russell)