Source: data from Containerization International.
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World's Major Container Ports, 2012
Container ports are reflective of the world's commercial geography particularly since they dominantly handle finished and intermediate goods. Commodities are becoming more prevalent, but still remain a niche market. Prior to the 1990s, the world's most important ports were North American (e.g. New York) and Western European (e.g. Rotterdam). Globalization, supported by Containerization, completely changed the world's commercial geography with the emergence of new port locations reflecting changes in the global geography of production, distribution and consumption. This geography indicates a high level of traffic concentration around large port facilities, notably Pacific Asian ports along to Tokyo - Singapore corridor. As export oriented economic development strategies took shape, the number of containers handled in Pacific Asian ports, notably Chinese ports, surged. The comparative size of ports requires caution as several ports can be considered more statistical agglomerations than functional entities. For instance, the port of Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta is composed of several large port facilities (e.g. Yantian, Chiwan, Shekou) that act as distinct entities within their operations and are even servicing different hinterlands. The same observation applies to Guangzhou and Shanghai that are multiport (and multi terminal) entities.
The world's largest container ports underline the intricate relationships between export-oriented ports (e.g. Shanghai and Hong Kong), import-oriented ports (e.g. Los Angeles / Long Beach) and intermediary hubs (e.g. Singapore and Dubai). The world container port system is characterized by a high level of traffic concentration with the 20 largest container ports handling more than 49% of global traffic in 2012. There is also an emerging geography of container ports involving a specialization between container ports acting as gateways and container ports acting as intermediate hubs. Gateway ports command the access of large manufacturing or market regions and are the spearhead of long distance corridors. Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Rotterdam are notable examples of ports that command access to a vast and complex hinterland. Intermediate hub ports (or offshore hubs) act as intermediary locations where containers are transshipped between different segments of the global maritime transport system in a manner similar to hubs in air transportation. Singapore and Dubai are among the most prominent transshipment hubs, each servicing a specific transshipment market (Southeast Asian and the Middle East / South Asia respectively).
The recent changes in containerized traffic are reflective of the shifting commercial dynamic in the global economy. North American ports have experienced limited changes, in part due to peaking consumption levels, with port demand substantially impacted by the recession of 2008-10. By 2015, container traffic volumes were barely back to their 2008 levels. Japanese ports experienced significant growth in the 1970s and 1980s, which was then supplemented by Korean and Taiwanese ports in the 1990s. The most significant recent growth dynamic took place along the Chinese coast where during the 2000s the export-oriented process was in full gear. Ports of the European northern range, mostly Antwerp and Rotterdam, have grown in part due to an extensive hinterland accessibility deep inside Europe. There is also a "transshipment belt" ranging from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Gibraltar that has experienced notable traffic growth. It particularly concerns Singapore, Dubai, the outlet of the Suez Canal (e.g. Port Said) and the outlet of the Strait of Gibraltar (Tangier Med, Algeciras and Valencia). South American ports are also actively growing though a combination of economic growth (strengthening of the hinterland) as well as transshipment (Panama, Cartagena, Callao).