By Christopher Williams

Saint John Port Days 2012 promoted trade with Latin America and the Caribbean during a three-day affair that generated buzz and business relationships. Kicking off with the second annual Port Community Day, followed by a St. John River cruise and a golf tournament, the inaugural call of Disney Cruise Line to Saint John was a magical crescendo.

During the business session held on June 12th, hundreds of delegates listened to a panel of business experts from the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and from individuals representing corporations such as Panama Canal Authority and Tropical Shipping.

Andy Jacques, Trade Commissioner for the Canadian Embassy in the Dominican Republic, provided myriad reasons to trade with the “Caribbean Tiger” and its nine million people who, on average, are less than 30 years old. He showed charts indicating average economic growth of seven per cent annually over the last decade. “But only one percent of the country’s imports are from Canada,” observed Jacques. “We should be able to do a lot better, and Atlantic Canada can be a big part of it.”

Jacques said companies like RIM and Barrick Gold are doing very well in the Dominican Republic which still needs major infrastructure improvements. He said the existence of a free trade agreement with the U.S makes it more difficult to compete for countries that do not have a free trade agreement in place, such as Canada. Nevertheless, “Canada is perceived as a friendly, less threatening country than the U.S.,” Jacques said. “The Dominican Republic is open and interested in business partnerships with Canada.”

Itzamn Huelat, Consular Agent in Commercial Affairs, Export Promotion Agency of Costa Rica, said his country is Latin America’s safest, and has one of the highest Gross Domestic Product levels in the region. “Costa Rica is known for its bananas and coffee but we are also the fifth largest high-tech exporter in the world.”  Huelat said Intel, HP and IBM all have a strong presence. “Costa Rica’s bilateral trade with Canada has increased from about $100-million in 2000 to about $635 million in 2011, and Costa Rica has a trade surplus with Canada of about $315 million.”  He shared a scoop that WestJet may soon be offering direct flights to Costa Rica.

Marianela Dengo, Customer Relations Manager, Panama Canal Authority joked that “It’s my first time in Canada, and my teenage daughter was excited that I was visiting Justin Bieber’s homeland.” A speaker at numerous maritime related courses and conferences both in Panama and abroad, Ms. Dengo presented a detailed update on the shortcut that joins the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at America’s narrowest point. Dengo said the Panama Canal is undergoing a $5.25-billion expansion to deepen and widen the canal so ships with a 15-metre draft can pass through it. It is expected to be completed by 2014. At 80 kilometres in length, it takes a ship about 24 hours to pass through the canal. “Most Canadian ships which pass through it are travelling from the West Coast to Europe,” said Dengo, noting that ship traffic through the canal has remained steady but cargo has grown exponentially.

Dennis Legere, National Sales Manager, Tropical Shipping, whose weekly container service from Saint John to Florida and the Caribbean has grown steadily for eleven years, concurred with Mr. Jacques that Canadians are well respected in Latin American and are known for high quality products and services, yet admits the various niche markets do have their challenges. “Destination storage capacity is generally limited and the cost of power is high, thus the cost of carrying inventories is high. This is why we are importing less-than-container-loads and offer small islands weekly ‘just-in-time’ service.” Legere said Saint John offers superior delivery time compared with Asia or Europe.

Andrew Dixon, Senior Vice-President, Planning & Development, Port Saint John, who moderated the business session, agreed, “Tropical Shipping and Mediterranean Shipping Company container services out of Saint John make the logistics process easy for both regions. Port Saint John is energized and on the move.” Dixon added that from Santos, Brazil, to Saint John is 4,931 nautical miles, one nautical mile farther than New York City, due to the earth’s curvature.  He pointed out Port Saint John does not have ship congestion problems like larger ports nor does it suffer from low water levels plaguing ports on the St. Lawrence River.

At the Port Days luncheon, well attended by local community leaders, Jim Quinn, President and CEO of Port Saint John, showed a new video highlighting the port’s history and diversity. “Saint John is now the largest port by volume in the region moving 31.7 million tonnes in 2011, a record year,” Quinn stated. “We are also the fourth busiest cruise destination in all of Canada.”

Stephen Campbell, Chairman of Saint John Port Authority, standing in for the Hon. Keith Ashfield, federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Atlantic Gateway, said the Port has an opportunity to grow as larger vessels require deep-water ports like Saint John. “If we don’t make the right investments now, other ports will, and the opportunity will be lost.” He said the Port’s recent achievements are “remarkable and are creating a new buzz” in the community. Campbell noted that cargo has increased three years in a row. Revenue also increased in 2011, jumping from $15.5 million to $16.2 million.

David Moloney, Senior Advisor to the Privy Council Office Border Action Plan Implementation, was the keynote speaker at the luncheon. He provided a detailed update on the Border Action Plan which he described as a strategy to “eliminate speed bumps”. He said “all aspects of the plan must come together to improve our economy and joint security and the lives of millions of people that cross it everyday.” Moloney estimates $1.5 billion in commercial transactions happen across the U.S-Canadian border every day, and said considerable progress is being made to streamline and align the border system for all modes of transportation. “We are finally doing the stuff that should have been done sooner.”

Also at the luncheon, Tropical Shipping received the annual Port Saint John Award from Jim Quinn. Garth Moore, retiring President of PCS Potash, w­­­­as also recognized for his contribution to expanding New Brunswick potash mining and exports through Port Saint John. Moore humbly accepted the gift and offered a $500 donation to the Saint John Seafarers’ Mission of which Al Soppitt (past SJPA Chairman and President) is the Chairman. Moore challenged other organizations to do this same.

The morning after the Port Days Seafood Fiesta finale, the Disney Magic cruise ship docked for the first of nine scheduled calls this season as the sun came up on the Bay of Fundy. About 2,500 passengers aboard the 11-deck vessel visited Saint John on a bright spring day with most of them taking shore excursions or walking into the heart of uptown Saint John. Some of Disney’s favourite characters welcomed a group of local delegates on board. Seventy-three cruise ships will dock in Saint John this season, bringing with them roughly 187,000 passengers and 74,000 crew members.

Saint John Port Days concluded with the North-South Incoming Mission, a special extension to Port Days offering one-on-one meetings with panelists and delegates interested in expanding Latin America trade. “Afterward, I had a chance to speak with several of the delegates to gauge the success of this initiative,” added Andrew Dixon. “All responses were positive with potential for further discussions, but I was particularly pleased to hear of impending deals between Canadian businesses and our friends in the Caribbean and Central America in some cases.”