Shanghai’s lead as top cargo port narrows as Asia dominates throughput

Dry bulk cargoes, particularly iron/metal ore and coal, remained the most common cargoes handled by the ports in 2017. Credit: Shutterstock

Mainland China continues to dominate the global port scene with 14 of the country’s ports placing in the top 20 of total throughput globally last year, according to an analysis of IHS Markit Maritime and Trade data.

In the second instalment of the top tonnage analysis, almost all ports have seen growth in total throughput over a five-year period (2012–17), with Shanghai ranking first with more than 705 million tonnes of cargo moved in 2017. Notably, Shanghai was the only port in the top 20 to see a decline in throughput over the same time span. With a lot of other ports recording double-digit growth rates, Shanghai has seen its commanding lead over its competitors tighten.

It was business as usual at the top of the list, with Singapore and Suzhou ranking second and third, respectively, while Guangzhou and Tangshan rounded out the top five ports, with all recording strong growth rates over the five-year period. Tianjin, which ranked fourth last year, has slipped five places to ninth in total throughput because of its competitors’ strong growth, despite its own modest growth of 5.86%. Tianjin is also notable as the only port in the top 20 to handle less cargo in 2017 than it did the previous year.

Guangzhou, Tangshan, Zhoushan, Ningbo, Caofeidian, Yosu, Yantai, and Port Hedland all climbed up the list, while Tianjin, Dalian, and Rizhao all slipped.

There were two new entries in this year’s analysis, with the ports of Hong Kong and Zhanjiang coming in at number 19 and 20, respectively, replacing Zhangjiagang and the Port of South Louisana. Both Hong Kong and Zhanjiang recorded a total throughput of 281.5 million tonnes in 2017, with Zhang-jiang seeing a rise of 122.36% over the five-year period, the highest growth rate in this year’s study.

Asia’s dominance in the port scene is more evident than ever this year, with just two ports in the top 20 coming from outside the continent: Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Port Hedland, Australia, with the latter securing a 104.84% rise in throughput over the five-year span.

Dry bulk cargoes, particularly iron/metal ore and coal, remained the most common cargoes handled by the ports in 2017, just as they were in 2016. Tangshan, Ningbo, Port Hedland, Zhoushan, and Caofeidian handled a combined 1.35 trillion tonnes of dry bulk cargo last year, with the majority being produced, distributed, and shipped in Asia. However, the Port of Tianjin, which historically specialises in handling coal, experienced a fall in coal throughput in 2017 because of regulations that have recently come into effect to reduce pollution levels.

A common trend to watch at key ports undergoing development is the construction of automated container terminals. Shanghai, Qingdao, and Tianjin have all moved in this direction, which has significantly expedited the way containers are handled and passed through port grounds, thus improving turnaround times for vessels and boosting throughput.

With advances in modern technology ever-growing, automated terminals could become an integral part of the world’s most important ports for years to come.

Port Hedland in Australia is one of the sites that is expanding its facilities to accomodate for future growth.

Pilbara Ports Authority chief executive officer Roger Johnston said, “New mines and agribusiness in the Pilbara region will require additional general cargo infrastructure in the next two to three years to accommodate forecasted trade growth through Port Hedland. Considerable activity is under way to enhance the existing facilities at Port Hedland, including a maintenance project to upgrade an ageing deck on Berth 3.”

Pilbara Ports Authority is also progressing work on a new general cargo facility and logistics hub at Lumsden Point, within the Port Hedland inner harbour.

“Preliminary works have been carried out at Lumsden Point. These works will support private investment into the second-stage development, which includes berth construction, cargo-handling infrastructure, and roads and services for an adjacent logistics hub,” Johnston added.


#1 Shanghai

Once again, Shanghai tops the list after handling 705.6 million tonnes of cargo in 2017. In addition to handling the most cargo at a single port, it also handled the most containers, with 40.3 million teu passing through the port last year. With Shanghai Yangshan Deep-Water Port, the world’s largest automated container terminal, now open, the port is expected to handle an additional four million teu per annum. However, like last year’s analysis, the port is the only one on the list to register negative growth between 2012 and 2017, with -4.12%.

#2 Singapore

The Port of Singapore remains another non-mover on this year’s list, coming in at second place with 626.2 million tonnes of cargo handled last year, a rise of 16.47% compared with 2012. Early indications anticipate a productive 2018 for the port, with 418.6 million tonnes of cargo already handled as of August. Of this, about 246 million tonnes is made up of containerised cargo, 16.3 million tonnes of general cargo, 144.7 million tonnes of crude products, and 11.5 million tonnes of non-oil bulk products. Preliminary estimates also predict a strong container performance, with 24.3 million teu handled as of August. Interestingly, although Singapore does not produce any oil, it remains the world’s top bunkering port with 50.6 million tonnes handled in 2017.

#3 Suzhou

Located in the Yangtze River Delta, the main cargoes handled at Suzhou are coal, metallic and non-metallic ores, iron, steel, and cement. As of 1 October, the China Maritime Safety Administration has required all vessels entering Suzhou to use fuel oil not exceeding 0.5% in sulphur levels. It is unclear at such an early stage whether this will hinder the port’s performance in the forthcoming years, but it will certainly be something to look out for after the port recorded an impressive haul of 607.7 million tonnes of cargo in 2017, a rise of 41.99% compared against 2012.

#4 Guangzhou

Guangzhou is one of the fastest-growing ports in southern China and the only deepwater port on the western Pearl River Delta. It should therefore come as no surprise that the port moved up one place after handling a total of 566.2 million tonnes of cargo in 2017, marking a five-year increase of 30.45%. Guangzhou is one of China’s busiest container ports, handling about 20.3 million teu in 2017, which can largely be attributed to container trade with North America almost doubling since 2016. With the port also exploring options to set up a service on the east coast of the United States, Guangzhou could break into the top three next year.

#5 Tangshan

Another port to move up one place in the list is Tangshan, which handled 565.4 million tonnes of cargo in 2017, an increase of nearly 50 million tonnes compared with 2016 and a five-year throughput increase of 55.07%. The port is diverse in nature, handling a wide variety of cargoes including coal, coke, pig iron, steel, cement, containers, agricultural products, liquid petroleum, gas, grain, and liquid chemicals. However, perhaps the most popular and important cargo managed at the port is metal ores, at just more than 119 million tonnes in 2017.

#6 Ningbo

Ningbo recorded a total throughput of 552.2 million tonnes in 2017, a rise of 21.89% over the five-year period. The strong growth resulted in the port climbing two places in the rankings compared to last year’s analysis. Of the total throughput, iron ore made up 83.9 million tonnes, a year-on-year (y/y) increase of 9.9%; coal made up 59.9 million tonnes, a 10.9% y/y increase; and crude oil made up 65.8 million tonnes, an increase of 4.6% y/y. Ningbo also handled 23.6 million teu last year, a rise of 13.9% compared to 2016.

#7 Qingdao

The Port of Qingdao handled 507.9 million tonnes of cargo last year, a rise of 24.84% compared to 2016. The port is also home to Qingdao Qianwan Container Terminal, Asia’s first fully automated port terminal, which is in part responsible for the facility handling a respectable 18.3 million teu in 2017. With Qingdao Municipal Government having recently released a detailed implementation programme to make the city a major point of national cruise tourism by 2020, business is expected to continue to grow at the port for years to come.

#8 Port Hedland

The first port in the ranking from outside of Asia, Port Hedland is operated by Pilbara Ports Authority and can proudly boast that it is the world’s largest bulk minerals export port. It serves the mineral-rich Pilbara region of Western Australia and continues to report y/y increases in total throughput tonnage, with a five-year increase of 104.84%. In 2017, total cargo throughput at the port was 505.3 million tonnes, most of which was iron ore exports. Other exports include salt, lithium, copper concentrate, manganese, and cattle, while imports include fuel, chemicals, ammonium nitrate, and general cargo. A general cargo facility and logistics hub are being built to meet future demand for all non-iron ore industries, including the growing lithium concentrate volumes and developments on the agricultural-trade front. 

#9 Tianjin

Tianjin had the largest fall from grace out of the top 20 on this list, dropping four places to number nine. The port handled 46.3 million tonnes less cargo in 2017 than it did in 2016, although it did record a 5.86% overall rise across the five-year analysis period. Various regulations have recently come into effect at the port, with negative results, including a ban on the trucking in and storage of coal within port grounds amid fears of rising pollution levels. When you consider that Tianjin handled about 110 million tonnes of coal in 2016, these new stipulations are a massive blow. This year, the port has been exploring ways to boost cargo throughput, including testing a domestically developed, self-driving electric truck, as well as automated container terminals and wharves.

#10 Rotterdam

Europe’s principal port continues to perform well, handling 467.4 million tonnes of cargo in 2017, a rise of 5.86% over the five-year period. Of this total, 214.3 million tonnes was liquid bulk, 80.2 million tonnes was dry bulk, and 30.3 million tonnes was breakbulk cargoes. In terms of container throughput, the port handled 13.7 million teu in 2017, marking a y/y increase of 1.35 million teu, making it the biggest container port in Europe. Rotterdam can also accept the largest seagoing vessels and offers massive depths, as well as no threat from the restrictions due to tides or locks. For the past three years, the port has continuously handled more than 460 million tonnes of cargo.

#11 Zhoushan

Total cargo throughput at the Port of Zhoushan in 2017 was 457.8 million tonnes, an increase of 57.32% over the five-year period. Of that figure, foreign trade accounted for 142.3 million tonnes, representing a y/y increase of 8.8%. Of the main cargoes handled by the port, oil and natural gas equated to 69.9 million tonnes, up 9.3% from 2016; ores, including 185.8 million tonnes of iron ore and 15.9 tonnes of other metal ores, were up 10.4%; grain throughput was 8.28 million tonnes, down 4.5%; and coal throughput was 24.9 million tonnes, down 4.5% from the previous year. The port also handled more than one million teu, an increase of 19.8% from 2016, of which exports were 53,000 teu. 

#12 Dalian

Dropping one place on the list is the Port of Dalian, which handled 451 million tonnes of cargo in 2017, a five-year increase of 20.6%. The port’s strategic location in the centre of the Northeast Asian Economic Circle, coupled with the fact that it is a very wide and deep port that does not experience silt or ice, makes it a popular choice for large, oceangoing vessels. With the construction of Dalian Northeast Asia International Shipping Center and the development and opening of the Liaoning Coastal Economic Belt, Dalian has displayed a fast-growing expansion trend. The port is also home to the largest domestic crude oil terminal that can accept vessels of up to 300,000 dwt and has an annual crude oil production capacity of 80 million tonnes. 

#13 Busan

The Port of Busan, South Korea’s busiest port, handled 401.2 million tonnes of cargo in 2017, the most it has handled since it opened in 1876. In container throughput, it handled 20.5 million teu – representing about 80% of the country’s boxed shipments – despite the loss of volume from Hanjin Shipping’s bankruptcy in February 2017. The port registered a five-year percentage increase of 29.01% and is currently considering launching an initiative to bring liquefied natural gas (LNG) bunkering to the port via a floating LNG facility and hopes to have this fully operational by mid-2019. 

#14 Caofeidian 

Caofeidian made the biggest leap in this year’s list, rising four places after handling 380.6 million tonnes of cargo in 2017, a five-year rise of 67.67%. The primary cargo handled at the port is coal, with about 233.4 million tonnes of the cargo handled last year. The port, situated on an island of the same name, is an ice- and silt-free deepwater port whose berths can accommodate vessels of more than 300,000 dwt. As a result of recent overcapacity at the port and the current global market for coal, the development of two coal terminals being constructed at Caofeidian has paused. The terminals are expected to add 100 million tonnes of capacity as part of the port’s expansion project, while another new terminal, which has neared completion, will add 50 million tonnes of capacity once it comes online.

#15 Yingkou

Yingkou handled 362.4 million tonnes of cargo in 2017, a five-year increase of 20.35%. The port benefits from its location only a short distance between the hinterland and port area. The port has remained relatively stable over the years, consistently handling more than 300 million tonnes of cargo during the five-year period. The port has also taken on the responsibility for the construction of new port areas in Huludao and Dandong that will ultimately enhance future cargo output. 

#16 Rizhao

The Port of Rizhao has been a consistent performer since it opened in 1986 but finds itself dropping two places in this year’s list. Rizhao specialises in the loading and unloading of iron ore, coal, grain, wood, cement, oil, containers, and liquid chemicals. It handled 360 million tonnes of cargo in 2017, a rise of 28.12% over the five-year period. Development plans suggest the port will eventually have more than 250 berths with an estimated annual production capacity of 750 million tonnes once expansion projects are complete.

#17 Yosu

Yosu handled 291.8 million tonnes of cargo and 2.22 million teu in 2017, with a five-year cargo throughput increase of 20.57%. The South Korean port’s main exports are apples, cereals, and dry bulk cargoes, while its imports include general cargo, containers, cement, oil, and coal. The port also has an oil tanker terminal and acts as a hub for passenger and cargo vessels connecting scattered islands to the mainland.

#18 Yantai

Yantai had a productive 2017 that saw it handle 285.6 million tonnes of cargo, a rise of 42.33% over the five-year period. This can mainly be attributed to the port handling larger quantities of bauxite and, in doing so, becoming one of China’s principal ports for importing this cargo. The port is a multipurpose port with facilities for wet and dry shipments, as well as major drydock facilities.

#19 Hong Kong  

New entry Hong Kong comes in at number 19, having fallen just short last year. In 2017, the port handled 281.5 million tonnes of cargo, an increase of 4.55% over the five-year period, as well as 20.8 million teu, 185,420 vessels, and 26.8 million passengers. The port is ideally positioned, having a naturally sheltered harbour that provides good access and a haven for vessels calling at the port from around the world.

#20 Zhanjiang

Also joining the top 20 this year is Zhanjiang, which handled 281.5 million tonnes of cargo in 2017, a five-year increase of 122.36% – the largest percentage upsurge in the top 20. This is due to the port expanding its business, improving its services, and opening two inland ports to aid the seaport. Zhanjiang also exceeded 900,000 teu in 2017, surpassing its target in the process and registering a y/y increase of 25%. With the construction of a petrochemical complex on the nearby island of Donghai, a new oil refinery operated by Sinopec, and recent authorisation for vessels of more than 100,000 dwt to enter and leave the port freely, Zhanjiang is expected to make huge strides going forward.


Top 20 ports by annual throughput: 2012-17

Position

Port

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

Five-year change

1

Shanghai

736000000

776000000

756000000

717590000

700005000

705630000

-4.12%

2

Singapore

537600000

557500000

581268000

575845800

593296700

626170000

+16.47%

3

Suzhou

428000000

453000000

478000000

540000000

573760000

607740000

+41.99%

4

Guangzhou

434000000

471510000

499000000

475481000

521810000

566190000

+30.45%

5

Tangshan

364600000

446200000

500800000

493000000

515800000

565400000

+55.07%

6

Ningbo

453000000

496000000

526464000

510000000

500000000

552180000

+21.89%

7

Qingdao

406900000

450000000

465000000

485000000

500830000

507990000

+24.84%

8

Port Hedland

246672060

288400000

446921901

460408649

484509519

505300000

+104.84%

9

Tianjin

477000000

500000000

540000000

552490000

549140000

502840000

+5.41%

10

Rotterdam

441500000

440500000

444733000

466400000

461200000

467400000

+5.86%

11

Zhoushan

291000000

313800000

347001000

379000000

425900000

457820000

+57.32%

12

Dalian

374000000

410000000

428000000

415000000

437000000

451050000

+20.60%

13

Busan

311000000

324858224

346640071

359676343

362369364

401232669

+29.01%

14

Caofeidian

227000000

245000000

286000000

259870000

289780000

380630000

+67.67%

15

Yingkou

301100000

300000000

345000000

338000000

347020000

362390000

+20.35%

16

Rizhao

281000000

283730000

300000000

337000000

350620000

360020000

+28.12%

17

Yosu

242000000

240579000

254383000

272009000

284600000

291800000

+20.57%

18

Yantai

200660000

221560000

236120000

245200000

265360000

285600000

+42.33%

19

Hong Kong

269282000

276055000

297737000

256559000

256730000

281545000

+4.55%

20

Zhanjiang

126600000

176500000

200000000

220000000

255170000

281520000

+122.36%


Just missing out 

Just missing out on the list this year are the Port of South Louisiana, Huanghua, and Zhangjiagang.

The Port of South Louisiana, which placed 16th last year, drops out after handling 279.2 million tonnes of cargo in 2017. Despite its slip in the global rankings, Paul Aucoin, executive director of the Port of South Louisiana, envisions a bright future for the port. “We think the outlook for the Port of South Louisiana is very favourable.  We have 16 new companies that have announced locating in our port district with a total capital investment of USD23.26 billion, adding 4,000 jobs to the port district,” he said. As of the second quarter of 2018, the Port of South Louisiana had handled 135.2 million tonnes of cargo this year, a drop of 3% when compared to the same period last year.

The second port to just miss out on the list was Huanghua. It went from handling about 130 million tonnes of cargo in 2012 to 269.6 million tonnes in 2017, a five-year increase of 107.36%. A large portion of the total throughput was coal, which accounted for 211 million tonnes last year, and iron ore (43 million tonnes). 

Despite falling out of the top 20, Zhangjiagang is still registering a percentage growth in cargo handled over the five-year period of 6.8%, but it handled just 267 million tonnes in 2017. The port’s main cargoes include steel, timber, ore, coal, cement, chemical fertilisers, edible oils, and liquid chemicals.