This month we are bringing you to the Port of Helsinki, Finland’s busiest passenger port. Its CEO, Mr. Ville Haapasaari, told us more about how he got into maritime transport, his vision for the Port for the next decade, and the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on the Port, among other very interesting topics!
Can you briefly tell us about the Port of Helsinki? What are its main characteristics and challenges?
Helsinki is one of the busiest passenger ports in the world, and the Port of Helsinki Ltd creates a seamless framework for sea traffic to Tallinn, Stockholm, Travemunde and St Petersburg. In 2019, 12.2 million passengers travelled through the Port of Helsinki. Our passenger harbours lie in the very heart of the city.
The Port of Helsinki is also Finland’s leading general port for foreign trade. In 2019, the total cargo traffic amounted to 14.4 million tonnes. The main export commodities are products for the forest industry, machinery and equipment, whereas in imports the most prominent product group are daily consumer goods.
In 2019, the turnover of Port of Helsinki Ltd was 95.6 million euros. The Port of Helsinki Ltd is a limited company owned by the City of Helsinki.
As a forerunner in our sector, the Port of Helsinki takes responsibility for people and the environment in its operations – each and every day.
We participate actively in society’s discussion concerning the port and logistics field and cooperate with decision-makers, influencers and authorities. We want to advance our business sector and help the companies connected to it and the surrounding society understand the business operations of the port and of maritime industry and their impact on the Finnish economy and well-being.
We are in constant dialogue with our partners and regularly measure customer satisfaction with our operations. We also want to be a good neighbour to the citizens of Helsinki. We keep our discussion channels open and work actively with neighborhood associations in our local region by, for example, organising regular events.
How did you get into maritime transport? How did your career path lead to this position?
During my commercial studies back in the 90s, I acquired my first trainee positions in the forest industry logistics. This was not something I specifically targeted, it was more what was available at the time. However since then I have done my whole career in logistics, and enjoyed the whole ride; it is an extremely interesting sector.
I have worked for almost 15 years in a shipping company in various positions. This lead me to manage Helsinki Airport for six years in 2012-2018. After that it was kind of a logical step to come to the port. In my current position, I can make good use of the knowledge gained from both shipping as well as the airport. There are a lot of similarities between airports and ports, but of course the emphasis on cargo is much bigger in our sector than it is generally in airports.
What is your vision for the Port of Helsinki for the next decade?
The Port of Helsinki’s goal is to become the world’s most functional port. This vision is derived from the strategy of the Port’s owner, the City of Helsinki: Helsinki aims to be the world’s most functional city.
I believe that functionality is associated with cost effectiveness, efficient operation, and smooth traffic arrangements and logistics, as well as customer satisfaction and the customer experience that the Port provides to passengers. There are no international indicators that Helsinki could use to prove that it is the world’s most functional city, nor do any such indicators exist for ports. The main point of this vision is that it guides our activities in the right direction and inspires our staff as well as the partners who will help to realise it.
Becoming the world’s most functional port is an ambitious objective. If we compare with the ports close to us, Helsinki has good, modern infrastructure, particularly in terms of cargo but also in the passenger business, thanks to the development of the West Harbour.
When I began working as the Port of Helsinki’s CEO at the beginning of April 2018, I started by familiarising myself with the company’s operations, personnel and stakeholders. Updating the Port’s strategy was my first task.
We decided upon key matters for the next three to five years. When we concentrate on them, we will not be focusing on any other development work. Of course, there is still a lot of basic activity that needs to continue operating.
The largest focal shift in the key projects is the strive to understand the experience of end customers. In the port sector, customer relationships are usually taken to refer to shipping companies and operators. In terms of passenger traffic, the end customer is the passenger.
I think it is a basic matter to measure the customer experience systematically as we then have methods for understanding which types of passengers we have and we will see the changing trends in services. At the same time, we must look at which extra services the port is able to provide to these customers. This does not just mean commercial offerings but a seamless passenger experience, which is linked with parking solutions and the possibility to transition smoothly from one mode of transport to another.
Traffic is the most challenging area
The most challenging area of activity for the port is currently related to the key project of becoming a functional part of the city.
The traffic generated by the harbours in the city centre and the traffic arrangements around the harbours are concerns shared by residents and decision-makers alike, and they are also visible to passengers. The port has been a topic of heated discussion among the various decision-making bodies involved in transport planning and urban construction.
The Port of Helsinki has given thought to the ways to influence the flow of traffic in the city centre. We are experimenting with a model of dynamic pricing in the pricing structure. This means that there are separate charges for freight traffic in the city centre harbours at peak times. The idea is to spread traffic out – particularly heavy goods traffic – between the various departures. At the same time, we have price-related incentives to increase the share of accompanied freight traffic from Vuosaari, which is our main cargo harbor. The early results of the price steering are promising, but the main thing is still that harbors need to have proper and smooth traffic connections on the landside. This can be influenced with better processes and use of digital tools, but also by improving the current road connections.
Timeline for expanding Vuosaari
Although freight traffic depends on economic cycles, and the outlook is currently very uncertain, I believe in a growth strategy for the Port of Helsinki. The Port is primarily an infrastructure operator, and port infrastructure development projects cannot be completed overnight.
It will be necessary to think about the roles of different parts of the port. In the city centre harbours, this will mean services for passengers, the passenger experience and, above all, keeping the infrastructure in good condition. As for Vuosaari, it will come down to the amount of capacity that is sufficient for handling traffic over the long term. There is room for expansion in Vuosaari, but acquiring all the permits and completing land infill will take years of work. This planning has therefore started now, thinking ahead of cargo needs in 20-30 years.
The COVID-19 pandemic has a profound impact on the economy and society. Ports are a crucial factor in the (emergency) supply chain, enabling goods transported overseas to reach their destinations on the mainland. How has the Port of Helsinki prepared itself to guarantee that goods can continue to be handled in the port? Do you have any contingency plans?
It is a part of our everyday life to be prepared for haphazard situations. The Port of Helsinki has set plans (and revises them regularly), for different kinds of accidents, unlucky events as well as epidemics. Now we are testing, or actually applying our plans in real life. As already said, ports and transportation play a vital role in the emergency supply chain, especially in Finland which is an island in a way. It is true that the borders are closed and border guards are at the port to check all those coming and going, but it is in the interest of all of us to keep the transport business as smooth as possible. Almost half of Finland’s import value - and much of it really is foodstuffs - comes through the Port of Helsinki, so we do have a major role in the game.
We are in contact with the National Emergency Supply Agency daily in order to keep our activities running. We have informed, and keep on informing our customers, both the few passengers and truck drivers as well as the shipping companies, about the health guidelines in this situation. We have not closed the port nor dismissed any of our workers to make all this happen. Our main task at the moment is to safeguard continuity in our cargo operations to keep society functioning.
The Port of Helsinki is Finland’s busiest passenger port. The ferry and especially the cruise business are impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. What is the impact on an important passenger Port as Helsinki? What needs to be done to mitigate the impact and ensure continuity of service?
Right now the situation is so severe that the Finnish Government has closed the borders of the country, as is done in many European countries. Only truck drivers and passengers returning to their home countries can go through.
We have only a couple of ferry departures daily right now, and they transport mostly goods. The impact on passenger traffic is huge. We follow passenger figures every day with our management group and are able to see the dive of figures from thousands daily passengers to only a few. Naturally this means an immense gap in our own economy as well. The other leg is cut off. So we are also cutting costs and looking into our investment programme in order to postpone some of the investments, for instance. Hopefully we will not have to do more than this and the situation will not last too long.
At this point it is crisis management and ensuring continuity as well as the health of our workers. We also need to start preparing ourselves now for coming back from the crisis period, ramping the services up again. The big question is what kind of longer term impacts the crisis will have to the overall economy, transport chains and travelling.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on global value and production chains, the debate on reshoring industry back to or closer to Europe gained a new momentum. Do you think that in time we will see a reshoring of industry closer to Europe?
This is a good question. Are we getting more protective instead of global after this crisis? I think on certain areas there will be more shift to local production, but to what extent remains to be seen. To reverse the whole development of past decades is not an easy task, and I do not foresee at the moment a big shift and I am in that sense hopeful for this shock to be temporary.
The Port of Helsinki has committed itself to the implementation of the Carbon-neutral Helsinki 2035 action plan. Can you briefly explain to us the key aspects of this action plan? How will the Port achieve carbon-neutrality by 2035? What will be the main challenges?
The Port of Helsinki operates as a traffic hub at the meeting point of the marine environment and the city. Our goal is to be a pioneer in sustainable port operations. We have set our goal high, and we strive towards it consistently and meticulously. The key aspects of port corporate responsibility are financial, social and environmental responsibility.
The objectives of the carbon-neutral programme of the port are:
- To make the own operations of the Port of Helsinki 100% carbon-neutral by 2035. The energy efficiency of lighting and heating, in particular, must be improved further. We must reduce consumption and what we must consume, we must produce entirely by sustainable means.
- To reduce total carbon dioxide emissions in the port area by 30% by 2035 compared to the current situation. The Port of Helsinki will support its customers and interest groups operating in the port in adopting more eco-friendly operating methods and technologies.
- To reduce carbon emissions from vessels in the port and in the water areas of the port by 25% by 2035.
One of the first steps is to build a shore power station at South Harbour for Tallink Silja. We already have one for Viking Line. With the new shore power station we are all set for those vessels that stay longer in the port, for which the system pays off to minimize local effects. In our programme for the coming five years we are building practically one new OPS per year.
European ports are increasingly investing in digital solutions to improve the efficiency of the logistics chain and port operations. Is the Port of Helsinki taking any initiatives towards digitalisation? Do you think digitalisation can contribute to making port operations and the logistics chain more sustainable?
We pride ourselves in the Nordic countries on being forerunners in digitalisation, and in forthcoming years the port will focus on operational efficiency.
Our infrastructure is in quite good condition, but some processes still need to be developed. This brings us to an assessment of which types of project we could execute to make the freight transport chain flow more smoothly. Digital technology is used in freight traffic to make data more readily available: when a certain freight unit is on land, when it can be collected – and how the data is presented to all of the parties involved.
In the passenger business, operational efficiency will be affected by the ways in which up-to-date information on port services is available on different channels. Many projects are on their way, in collaboration with our stakeholders, many experimental digital planning labs and platforms. We hope to see soon results to ease our traffic issues.
The Port of Helsinki is located on the North Sea – Baltic and Scandinavian – Mediterranean Corridor of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T). How has the Port benefitted from being part of these Corridors? What is the importance of EU funding for a Port like Helsinki?
We have been able to use EU funding for several years. First with our Twin Port I and II and now the III edition.
TWIN-PORT 3 project covers the period 2018-2023. The largest investments are done by the Port of Helsinki and the City of Helsinki, with EUR 24 million and EUR 27 million respectively. This has been vital for the realisation of the projects.
The CEF (Connecting Europe Facility) programme is a continuation to TEN-T, where the initial TWIN-PORT project was started. The second follow-up project is called TWIN-PORT 3. The development of the Helsinki-Tallinn maritime link as part of the TEN-T North Sea - Baltic core corridor has a vital importance as it connects the northern parts of Europe with southern TEN-T corridors.
The previous two TWIN-PORT projects mainly consisted of the building and development of the passenger terminals in Helsinki and Tallinn, opening the Muuga-Vuosaari Ro-Ro line and bringing a new LNG-fueled ferry MS MEGASTAR to serve the Tallinn-Helsinki line. The current TWIN-PORT 3 project concentrates on reducing the environmental impact of the increasing RoPax traffic and continues improving the multimodal transport link between Helsinki and Tallinn.
There are several traffic investments planned in connection with the Helsinki West Harbour to improve the transportation system and thus reduce congestion on the last-mile. Thanks to EU support some streets in Helsinki will get new lanes, the tram routes will be improved and a new bridge connecting the harbour area will be constructed. We will build a new multimodal solution close to West Terminal 2 to connect different modes of transport seamlessly with ferries. These investments will have a significant impact on the passenger journey and traffic “smoothness” on the whole Helsinki-Tallinn maritime link.
What are the main investment projects in the Port of Helsinki for the upcoming years? Could you briefly describe the importance of these projects for the port and the city?
The total economic impact of the Port of Helsinki has been estimated to be around 4.1 billion euros annually. The passengers alone create 700 million euros worth of consumption in the city of Helsinki annually. It is therefore self-evident that our task is in our investments to safeguard this positive impact and enable growth. At the same time this has to be done in a sustainable manner. To name a few development projects ongoing or starting for the coming years:
- The operating conditions of passenger ferry traffic at the harbours of the city centre will be ensured together with the City of Helsinki to improve traffic conditions;
- Improving and renewing our passenger terminal infrastructure for better customer satisfaction, services and better integration into the local neighborhood;
- Environmental investments (onshore power units, automooring systems, energy efficiency in the buildings, etc.);
- Improvments in processes (gate operations, data sharing, etc.);
- Taking part and enabling the development of the cruise ship traffic at Hernesaari, together with the City of Helsinki;
- Traffic will be facilitated by improving the road network, other infrastructure solutions and the port’s pre-gate operations;
- Vuosaari Harbour will be developed as a cargo harbour. This will require sensible city planning solutions, the development of the sea fairway and the development of land area use.