Lunar New Year’s a Holiday for Millions, But Not the Ports

Millions of people celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday each year, with countries having varied traditions and celebrations reflective of their culture and even names for the holiday itself. On mainland China, it’s known as the Spring Festival. In Vietnam, it’s TếtSeollal in South Korea, and Losar in Tibet.

While millions take a weeks-long break, what happens in the Asian factories producing goods that make up most household items in the United States?

The supply chains for the majority of U.S. businesses are directly linked to Asian factory production, largely in China. In early 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced millions to stay home, nearly all production halted. At ports around the world, cargo activity declined and “blank sailings,” a shipping industry term for cancelled container ship calls, began – even at the Port of New York and New Jersey, where such conditions normally are rare.

The Lunar New Year impact is deeply felt at the seaport between January and March each year, though it is less heavily reliant on Trans-Pacific trade than the West Coast ports. Still, cargo from China accounted for more than one-quarter of the port’s activity in 2020. The remainder of the seaport’s cargo flow originates from South America, Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa and South Asia.

“The reliance on Chinese manufacturing is so significant that a major holiday like the Lunar New Year affects most ports globally,” said Port Director Sam Ruda. “At the start of 2020, we had expected the annual drop in volume associated with the Lunar New Year, but we couldn’t foresee the implications of the emerging pandemic as factories remained closed after the holiday and all manufacturing stopped.”

While blank sailings contributed to a 17 percent dip in the port’s 2020 cargo activity at the worst of the pandemic, the port’s diverse cargo portfolio — and the overall resilience of global trade — helped temper that impact throughout the New York-New Jersey region. For the 46 million people who live within a 4-hour drive of the Port of New York and New Jersey, that’s good news.

The benefits of proximity to an international cargo hub that is the first port of call for most ships are countless. Among the millions of shipping containers that passed through the port in 2019 were more than 4.1 million tons of furniture, apparel and electronics from Vietnam by way of the Suez Canal, and more than 4.3 million tons of alcohol, appliances and cereal from Italy via the Mediterranean Sea, the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Even the most mundane household item, such as a package of men’s cotton briefs made in Sri Lanka, travels hundreds of thousands of miles from the Port of Columbo, through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic during its voyage to the New York-New Jersey area for truck or freight rail distribution to a warehouse, where it ends up on a store shelf or mailed to an online shopper.

“If you look around your house and try to imagine what would be left if you removed everything imported through our seaport, you’d be left with maybe a couch or a dress shirt still made in the U.S.” said Port Deputy Director Beth Rooney. “So much of what we use every day without any fanfare is imported and required an ocean voyage to get here.”

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