Times are tough, but there are signs that while the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis may take longer than hoped for, it is also likely to accelerate maritime transformation. This seemed to be the overall sentiment when summarising views from over twenty cities around the world representing the world’s continents in the midst of the crisis at a SEA20 virtual meeting which took place on 21 April.

The picture is chequered, to say the least. From the industry’s perspective the cruise business and passenger traffic are decimated everywhere, but cargo traffic is strong; Ports from Australia to the Nordics are reporting cargo traffic operating at normal capacity, Panama is determined to keep the Canal functioning without disruptions, and insight from Italy even shows some increases in port activity due to logistics moving from land to sea. Overall, the significance of shipping as a key contributor to the resiliency of cities and societies has become apparent yet again.

When will the crisis be over? Dr Martin Stopford, President of Clarkson Research, presented three maritime recovery scenarios: the good, the bad and the ugly. The good scenario (“trend growth”) would see lower trade volumes in 2020/21 and a brisk recovery in 2022. The bad scenario (“soft growth”) would mean that sea trade does not fully recover before 2024. But which one is the most likely? Most attendees seemed to be moving their bets from the first one to somewhere between scenarios two and three.


But it is not just about beating Covid-19. Dr. Stopford also stressed that “it is important to keep an eye on all the issues, the long term as well as the short. Only a tiny proportion of this is going to keel over with the virus.” And while decarbonisation plans are put on hold in some places, academia and industry agree that smarter ships, smarter ports and smarter logistics are the way forward, connecting all the way to city planning and how societies, ports and industry work together. Reporting from one of the worst outbreak hubs in US, Chris Clott (New York Maritime Innovation Center) shared these views, stating that we should not let a crisis like this go to waste. This is a fertile time for real discussion and  implementing better technology – to respond and build a better future. Architect Thomas Kosbau noted that in New York, the pandemic has strengthened trends such as reverse urbanisation, that come with direct ramifications for logistics chains and industries at large.


Paul Holthus, President of the World Ocean Council, concluded: “We have a responsibility to ensure a global economic trading system that can operate within the context of climate change and ocean change. Port cities are essential to achieving the sustainable development goals that we as a world have set for ourselves. We all realize this and want to keep at those priorities as much as possible inspite of the current serious challenges we are all facing.”


Cooperation will be key.


Cities, ports and organisations interested in joining the SEA20 initiative are encouraged to get in touch via the sign-up form.