Port of Tauranga's new megaship service to North Asia has lured Australian exporters and was expected to boost containers handled by the port to a record-breaking total of more than one million this year.
''We were all a bit nervous,'' port chief executive Mark Cairns said about the $350 million spent dredging shipping channels to make Tauranga the first New Zealand port capable of handling megaships.
But the dredging, which doubled the size of container ships able to berth at Tauranga, looked like it was paying off with the port entering a new era.
Maersk Line's new direct service to northern Asia ports involved Port of Tauranga becoming a trans-shipping hub for other New Zealand ports. Cargo was unloaded from smaller vessels and loaded onto the new generation container ships capable of carrying up to 9600 20ft-equivalent containers.
Mr Cairns said the $350 million investment would not have been possible without the agreement of Maersk in partnership with Kotahi committing to 10 years of cargo across Tauranga wharves. Kotahi was the export supply chain for Fonterra and Silver Fern Farms.
He said that five years ago, all the talk had been that if New Zealand did not have a big ship port, it would lose cargo to Australian ports like Sydney and Melbourne. Now Australian export cargo was being sent to Tauranga for transshipment on the new direct service.
The weekly service particularly appealed to exporters of time-sensitive chilled cargoes like meat and fish because of the fast transit time to ports in Taiwan, China, Korea and Japan - avoiding the need to transship from southern Asia ports.
''The service is going very well.''
Mr Cairns said the port had been able to sustain the biggest 9600 container capacity ships by ensuring they sailed full from Tauranga to Taiwan. They had expected Maersk would mainly use its 6500-capacity ships because they would be easier to fill.
He said New Zealand's trade volumes were quite small and shipping services were only viable if ships sailed full. He was surprised how successful they had been at filling up the 9600 container ships out of Tauranga.
There were 11 Maersk sister vessels in rotation from Chile to Tauranga to North Asia.
Mr Cairns said it was too early to say how much the service, which began three months ago, would impact on port revenues. That would become evident when the port company's interim results are announced next month.
However he said the port was expecting to exceed one million containers for the financial year to June 30 - up from 2016's record 954,000 containers.
The deepening of the shipping channels had also enabled the port to take ''ultra-max'' class logging vessels, and cruise ships like Ovation of the Seas.
Port of Tauranga Container Volumes
(All figures for 20ft equivalent containers)
2013: 848,000 containers
2014: 760,000 containers
2015: 851,000 containers
2016: 954,000 containers
2017 projection: One million plus
Source: Port of Tauranga