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Port of Charleston ends challenging 2020 on a high note

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Wando Welch Terminal

The Port of Charleston set a record for cargo moving through its terminals in December, giving the State Ports Authority a strong finish to a challenging year. English Purcell/State Ports Authority/Provided

A record number of cargo containers moved through the Port of Charleston in December, capping a difficult year marred by the coronavirus and a lack of cruise ship sailings.

The port handled the equivalent of 209,606 20-foot-long containers last month — a record for any December and an 11.6 percent year-over-year increase.

"The pandemic created unprecedented challenges to supply chains around the world," Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said in a statement. "I am immensely proud of our port employees and all those working in the maritime and logistics community for showing up every day during a pandemic to keep supply chains fluid. Their dedication ensures that food products, medical supplies, manufacturing parts and retail goods are efficiently delivered."

The port ended the year with roughly 2.3 million containers — 131,000 less than 2019, or a 5.4 percent year-over-year drop in cargo.

Vehicle exports increased by 18.5 percent in December and are up 11.2 percent for the fiscal year, which started July 1, largely on strong sales to Chinese buyers of BMW sport-utility vehicles built at the German automaker's Spartanburg County plant. BMW is the biggest U.S. vehicle exporter and most of its cars are sent to foreign countries through the port's Columbus Street Terminal in Charleston. Sales to consumers in China, BMW's largest overseas market, increased by 7.4 percent for the year.

"There is no doubt that 2020 was a challenging year for automotive sales, but we have found that these challenges were due more to the circumstances, rather than consumer demand," Bernhard Kuhnt, president and CEO of BMW of North America, said in a statement. 

The SPA's cruise business took the biggest hit from the pandemic, with Carnival Cruise Line and other carriers halting all sailings from U.S. ports in mid-March. A total of 64,403 cruise ship passengers had been through Charleston by the time the hiatus began. That compares to 262,776 passengers during a full year of cruising in 2019.

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Despite the decline, Carnival — which bases its Sunshine cruise ship at Union Pier Terminal in downtown Charleston — said bookings are up compared to last year and cruises from the Holy City are expected to resume in April.

The SPA's inland ports in Greer and Dillon, which move cargo by rail to and from Charleston, combined to handle 16,463 containers in December.

The state maritime agency's competitors are also reporting strong year-end numbers. The Port of Virginia processed a December record of 260,000 containers, following an all-time record of 280,000 containers in November. But earlier drops in volume led to an annual cargo decrease of 4.2 percent.

"This year presented more challenges to world trade than the industry could have ever imagined ...," John Reinhart, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority, said in a statement. "Our volumes for 2020 are not what we had hoped for initially, but we finished the year without any interruptions in our operations and record-setting volumes in October, November and December. Even though it was a difficult year, we delivered significant accomplishments."

The Georgia Ports Authority has not reported year-end numbers, but the Port of Savannah has set monthly cargo records from August to November and is on track to match or exceed its 2019 totals.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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