HIT reviews moving into Vietnam port

HONG KONG International Terminals (HIT) has not firmed up plans to operate a port in Vietnam, says managing director John Meredith.

The company was granted a licence to operate port facilities at Ho Chi Minh City about 18 months ago.

''We are continuously reviewing our position there and feel that the port has not reached the state of development when we can go in,'' he said.

''It is now a free-for-all situation there, like Bangkok, with everybody doing their own thing and shipping lines having their own berths. Until there is a need for a middleman, we don't feel we will fit in.'' He said that stage will come when there is so much traffic that ''chaos reigns''.

The ports of Bombay, Colombo and Karachi also have called for expressions of interest from international port operators.

Mr Meredith said conditions attached to the Bombay offer were not attractive as the facility would have to be handed back to the government after 10 years.

He said HIT is receiving a steady flow of proposals to develop and operate port facilities in developing countries.

''We send our people to look at the conditions prevailing at the ports and assess their potential. We look at about three ports a month,'' Mr Meredith said.

One of the main problems is that while central government officials of a country say they want to privatise port operations, officials at the ports are reluctant to release the reins of management.

He used Bangkok as an example, saying a lot of parties showed interest in operating the port, but when it came to final negotiations, the port authority wanted to retain control to such an extent that it was not worthwhile to invest in the facility.

''Doing only management work is not all that profitable, and we don't invest in a port unless we can manage it ourselves'' Mr Meredith said.

The port of Felixstowe, which is managed by HIT, does consultancy work and trains people from developing countries in port operations. It also sends out staff on training missions.

A batch of mainland officials recently attended a course at Felixstowe, while a separate batch of Chinese engineers attended a training course at HIT.

Asked why both groups could not be trained in Hong Kong, Mr Meredith said territory Government regulations restrict the number of foreign workers the terminal operators can bring in at a time for training and work.

Mr Meredith said P&O Australia is its main competitor in port management, controlling several ports around the world.

Its latest venture has been involvement in one of the container terminals in Manila.

P&O also has sent a management team to the Shekou Container Terminal, but Mr Meredith said HIT did not see it becoming a major interest port because of its location.

The National Shipping Co of Saudi Arabia (NSCSA), which started calling at the Shekou terminal when it opened in 1991, also has withdrawn and returned to Hong Kong.

NSCSA officials were not available for comment yesterday.