The call of the port

A trip to Haifa’s harbor reveals changing tides.

Haifa port 521 (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
Haifa port 521
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
I traveled to Haifa this week and saw The World. It was not perhaps what the Haifa Port Authority thought would most attract our attention when it invited a group of journalists to tour with the Government Press Office, but The World beckoned nonetheless in gleaming white on the blue waters.
The World is not so much a luxury cruise ship as a floating private residential community, owned by some 130 fortunate families who share the on-deck spas, pools, golf courses and similar posh facilities as they travel wherever they will. This 12-deck ship does not have cabins, it has apartments – even a penthouse – which serve as home so that the owners can cross the globe in comfort every two to three years.
The ship is just one of the recent noteworthy visitors to Haifa Port. Last week, there was a royal visit – Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. This luxury liner (known affectionately as “The QE”) combines the best of British style and seafaring traditions.
At one point last week, according to Haifa Port Company CEO Mendi Zaltzman, there were seven large cruise ships docked at the port.
The cruise ship “attack,” as Haifa Port Company spokesman Zohar Rom calls it affectionately, is to a large extent influenced by the recent events in Egypt.
Between January and October this year, more than 128,500 tourists passed through Haifa Port, a 96-percent rise over the figures for 2010, which were 100% more than the previous year.
A study of the port shows just how related global and domestic factors are. Just as you cannot separate one wave from the next, incidents near and far influence the port.
The QE, for example, was originally meant to dock in Ashdod but was rerouted to Haifa because of the latest round of missiles launched from Gaza.
Rom notes, however, that most cruise ships visiting Israel prefer to dock at both ports, using Ashdod as the jumping-off point for a day-trip to Jerusalem, and Haifa as the point of departure for Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.
SINCE HAIFA is a natural bay with deep water, sheltered from the strong southwesterly winds, it is assumed that even in prehistoric times, seafarers found it a safe haven.
According to Haifa Port Authority lore, the earliest mention of the harbor dates back to 104 BCE when Ptolemy Lathyrus of Cyprus brought forces to dock at the Shikmona port to wage war on the Jewish king Alexander Yanai.
Its fortunes have turned and turned again with the tides. It flourished under the Crusaders who conquered Haifa in 1100; floundered in the Marmeluke period; was conquered (briefly) by Napoleon in 1799; and in the 18th century, had a (bad) name as a pirates’ lair.
Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl prophesized the importance of the port in his book Altneuland, but even though he willed it, his dream had to wait.
When the British officially opened the port in October 1933, it was to serve their empire. Under the restrictions enforced on Jewish immigration by the infamous White Paper, Haifa served such a poignant role that even today part of the port is known as the “Quay of Tears.” This is where the would-be immigrants, many fresh from the horrors of the Holocaust, were held on board their rickety ships – in sight of the Promised Land but unable to enter. Here they added salt-water tears to the sea before being turned away for British-run detention camps in Cyprus and elsewhere.
When, in 1948, the last officials of the British Mandate left – via Haifa Port, naturally – new immigrants rushed in through the nascent state’s main gateway. And as overland borders were cut off when the surrounding Arab countries declared war, the port took on an added significance.
Under the blue-and-white flag, Jewish stevedores who had formerly worked in the Greek port of Salonika, just across the Mediterranean, helped establish the procedures at Haifa. Later they were joined by immigrants from all over Europe, North Africa and Iraq.
Today, there are some 1,100 direct employees and “a couple of thousands employed by sub-contractors,” according to Zaltzman, who boasts of the workers’ “professional pride.”
Haifa Port Company has operated as an independent governmental corporation since 2005 and is slated for full privatization, but Zaltzman, keenly aware of the changing economic climate, says the process will not be rushed.
A “sea-soned” CEO – he has previously also directed the Eilat Port Authority – Zaltzman seems calm but realistic as he lays out his plans for weathering the gathering storm.
“In 2008-2009, we faced a very severe crisis,” he notes, predicting that 2012 will be even more serious.
Zaltzman admits that talk about turning the hard times into an opportunity sounds cliché, but says that is exactly what he hopes to do. During the previous financial crisis, when prices for equipment were low, the port invested its efforts in developing the state-ofthe- art, computerized Carmel Terminal for cargo ships – an investment that is already paying off. Last year, the port processed 22 million tons of cargo, including 1.27 million TEUs (20-foot equivalent units – the term, we quickly discovered, used to measure cargo capacity.)
This year, Zaltzman is putting the emphasis on developing Haifa as a natural maritime hub – in competition with places like Greece’s Piraeus, for example – signing agreements with large shipping companies to increase cargo traffic and turning the port into the main one for maritime trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In the long term, Zaltzman harbors the dream that Haifa, once known as “the Port of Peace,” will offer an attractive sea route that means ships crossing the Mediterranean do not need to pass through the Suez Canal and all the way around the African coast to travel to destinations in the Arab world or Asia.
In the immediate future, the port is investing in deepening the entrance canal to allow bigger ships to dock, and is purchasing more modern tugboats.
DURING OUR tour, I got a glimpse of the future as well as feeling a tiny wave of nostalgia.
The harbor is backdropped by Mount Carmel, with the gold-capped Baha’i Temple tempting tourists from a distance. At the port, it is the majestic, modern ship-toshore cranes that dominate the landscape, along with the rail-mounted gantry cranes. Although the port is clearly busy – we could see mountains of Zim shipping company containers and a noticeable number of Chinese containers – it is relatively quiet. They obviously take the term “smooth operation” very seriously here.
As we passed the area where the old tugboats are tied up, I heard the relaxing sound of water lapping against the pier and saw a couple of dock workers fishing during their lunch break. (The fact that they caught fish seems to be a sign that the once disastrously polluted Kishon bay area is being successfully revitalized as part of the port’s stated commitment to the environment.) In the distance, flocks of birds hovered around the Dagon grain silo, where grain is loaded onto railcars and trucks at a rate of about 15,000 tons a day.
While Haifa is putting a tremendous effort into developing tourism, it is clear that the port and surrounding industries such as the shipyards, chemicals and transport industries are vital to the city’s future.
And so is peace. Apart from its toll on commerce and tourism, the Second Lebanon War cost the lives of a Haifa Port worker and eight Israel Railway employees working nearby.
Without peace, or at least a definite sense of longterm security, Haifa and its port will not be completely able to wave their troubles goodbye.