While Europe’s demand might weaken from a bad economy, competition for exports of Chilean clementines might actually heat up elsewhere, according to one Chilean produce official.

“We are doing big efforts on reaching new markets every day, not only in the European Union,” said Ronald Bown, president of the Chilean Exporters Association. “Eastern Europe — for example, Russia — Asia and the Middle East are also markets where we are working hard to increase our sales.”

Still, for the present and immediate future, there’s little question that a majority of Chilean clementines are shipped to the U.S.

“Fifty percent to 60% of clementines and mandarins go to the U.S.,” said Manuel Jose Alcaino, president and analyst for Decofrut, Santiago, Chile. “If you add Canada, then it’s close to 70% participation in North America.”

As recent as early April, clementines gained some competition for store shelves and consumers’ taste buds from Chile itself. The U.S. Department of Agriculture amended regulations to begin allowing the exportation of navel oranges and grapefruit from Chile to the U.S.

“This is very good business, especially for the Chilean oranges,” said Rodrigo Echeverria, chairman of Fedefruta, the Santiago-based Chilean fruit growers group.

But it could put competitive pressures on demand and consumption of Chilean clementines. According to a report from the Chilean exporters’ association, ASOEX, Santiago, Chile, expects overall exports of oranges to go up 20% in 2009 and expects exports of grapefruit to jump an enormous 150%.

Still, the report also projects Chile’s exportation of easy peelers — clementines and mandarins — to increase 35% in 2009.

When it comes to competing for export markets, as well as on the store shelves themselves, much depends on how long the shipping season can be extended. And, in that area, Chilean clementines might just have that covered, with different varieties hitting the U.S. markets as early as spring and lasting even into the fall, with strongest volumes into the summer citrus season. That provides promotable volumes of clementines to go up against California navels early in the season and still have enough to take on Australian navels later.

“It’s a matter of growing areas and conditions that can make even clemenules go as early as the earliest varieties available in Chile,” Bown said. “To expand the ending dates, there are certain varieties like w. murcotts, where Chile can expand its offer up to the end of September, and giving a good alternative to the clemenule.”

Alcaino said the U.S. clementine import market is supplied at the same time by South Africa and a little by Peru, but he added he didn’t see much in the way of competition there this year.

“We don’t expect much competition from Peru, and South Africa is down about 4%,” he said. “My impression is that South Africans and Chileans will avoid the European markets, which have suffered the most as far as weakened demand and get a good deal of their imports from Argentina and Uruguay.

“I think South Africa will be exporting more to the U.S., but we have more product. There’s going to be pressure, I think.”