Shanghai Keeps its Title as World's Busiest Container Port

The giant Shanghai Yangshan terminal, part of the SIPG harbor complex (file image)

Published Jan 16, 2020 8:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

Shanghai International Port (Group) has announced that it posted record high container traffic in 2019 with 42 million TEU in throughput. This amount is about four percent higher than last year, and it is enough to maintain Shanghai's status as the world's busiest container port for the ninth year in a row. 

Shanghai's booming performance continues to overshadow Hong Kong, once the world's titleholder for container throughput. In 2006, Hong Kong's Kwai Tsing harbor handled more than 23 million TEU, but that number has been gradually slipping; last year it reached roughly 18 million, down more than six percent from 2018. Hong Kong has gradually fallen to seventh place in the rankings, and it will likely drop behind eighth-ranked Qingdao this year. 

Several factors have put new pressure on Hong Kong's terminals. The port faces stiff competition from deep-sea ports in nearby Shenzhen and Guangzhou, two booming industrial areas that used to ship most of their production through Hong Kong - but now have closer options. It also has to deal with competition from the port of Singapore, the world's second-largest by volume, which set a new record with 37 million TEU last year. Singapore's terminals are capturing an increasing share of the East Asia transshipment business, which is a mainstay of Hong Kong's portfolio. There are also regulatory issues: as ships get bigger and bigger, the air draft restrictions imposed by Hong Kong's government at the Tsing Ma Bridge are becoming more of an operational challenge, limiting access for some terminals, shipping lines say.

One piece of good news for Hong Kong: the "phase one" trade deal with the United States may give port stakeholders and customers a bit more certainty moving forward.

“It’s almost impossible to put a game plan together when the goal post is moving almost daily,” said Peter Levesque of Hong Kong-based Modern Terminals, speaking to CNBC. “So we hope that through phase one agreement that we’ll be able to get a lot more certainty around what the future looks like. We’ll be able to plan better and we’ll be able to bring more volume back to Hong Kong.”