In 2023 disruptions to the world’s great sea lanes and a slowdown in demand following the post-COVID boom throttled TEU throughput at many ports around the world. 2024, however, looks to be a stronger year for container ports.

Ports and Ships

Ultimately any catalogue of ports is symbiotically also about ships, or in this specific case - container ships. After all, a port is measured by the ships that call and the freight that’s hauled. And in the case of both container ships and ports that is measured by Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units better known in the industry as TEUs.

According to Alphaliner, one of the most respected chroniclers of containership statistics, as of the first week of June 2024, there are 6,166 container ships active with a carrying capacity of 29,487,484 TEUs. Most of this volume is deployed on three major regional trade routes, the Trans-Atlantic with 159,315 TEUs, the Far East-to-Europe with 458,864 TEUs, and the largest, Trans-Pacific with 517,472 TEUs.

Unsurprisingly, most of AJOT’s Top 100 Container Ports A-Z serve one or more of these three great flows of freight. And equally unsurprisingly, twelve of the top fifteen container ports lie in Asia with China being the home to eight of these ports, including the world’s largest, Shanghai (see AJOT’s 10 Million Club chart on page 10 for more details).

In 2023 Shanghai handled nearly 49.2 million TEUs for the fifth straight year and the result was a full 10 million plus TEUs over Singapore at 39 million TEUs and roughly 14 million TEUs more than the neighboring Chinese port of Ningbo-Zhoushan at 35.3 million.

But there are changes in this year’s AJOT’s Top 100 Container Ports A-Z chart reflecting the fact that the industry, and indeed the world, live in an age of disruption. Some of these disruptions, like the Houthis actions in the Red Sea chokepoint, the Russia-Ukraine war, low-water problems with the Panama Canal or the ongoing trade-war between the United States and China have had massive impacts on container trade routes while other disruptions like the containership Dali’s collision with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore have been more localized. And in a few cases the “disruption” is more evolutionary than immediate.

Probably the most obvious example of the “evolutionary” shift is Hong Kong, which slipped to the number ten slot at 14.34 million TEUs and is destined to fall even further in the coming decades. Hong Kong, which for a time was the world’s largest container port, is a victim of its own geography and global economics. China’s Pearl River ports like Shenzhen at number four with 29.88 million TEUs or Guangzhou at number six with 25.41 million TEUs, have cut into Hong Kong’s port calls. This coupled with the rise of Shanghai and now Ningbo-Zhoushan virtually eliminated Hong Kong’s old role as the entrepot to China. And Hong Kong will be hit with another blow next year with the realignment of the ocean carrier alliances. Maersk and Hapag Lloyd will move into the new “Gemini Cooperation agreement” in 2025. And the Gemini agreement has said it will adopt a hub and spoke rotation system replacing Hong Kong with a Pearl River port “hub” call. (For more information on the ocean carrier alliances see: “What’s the Future For Ocean Carrier Alliances” issue #764 April 2024).

It is worth noting that ocean carrier alliances have a great deal of influence over how well a container port performs as they control roughly 51% of the existing fleet and operate a vast majority of the line-haul size (8,000 TEUs to 25,000 TEUs) vessels.

And while the numbers in 2023 might represent a normalization after the post-COVID flood of TEUs in 2022, another shift is already apparent. The June Global Tracker Report issued by the National Retail Federation (NRF) had a telling comment on 2024. NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said, “The high level of imports expected over the next several months is an encouraging sign that retailers are confident in strong sales throughout the remainder of the year.”

The Asian Ports

Since Asia is in many respects the well-spring of global freight, the region boasts the largest slice of ports in the top 100. This year’s chart has 35 entries, although a number of other Asian ports if more reliable data was provided could have been added. Again, it is no surprise that China (including Taiwan) reports the largest number of ports — 20 in total, including 11 ports within the first 25 on the list.

Singapore at number 2 with just over 39 million is steadily growing. The mega-terminal Tuas now has eight berths in operation and three more are expected to come onstream later this year. This year Singapore’s weekly volumes have risen from 770,000 TEUs to 820,000 TEUs. Tuas is one of the few container terminals that is efficiently able to handle ships above 22,000 TEUs — positioning Singapore well for further growth. The neighboring Port of Kelang Malaysia is also benefiting from trade being funneled through the Strait of Malacca, exceeding 14 million TEU throughput for the first time.

The shift in production from China to Vietnam has fed a growing need for more container ports. In 2023 it was estimated that Vietnam handled around 25 million TEUs in 2023. Nearly all of this total goes through three port areas, Hai Phong, Cai-Mep-Thi Vai and Ho Chi Minh (HCM). The Vietnam Maritime Administration aims to develop a seaport system that will be able to handle 38-47 million TEUs annually by 2030 — less than six years from now.

The South Korean port of Busan which posted a throughput of 22.75 million TEUs, ranking number 7 in the Top 100 container ports, has benefited from the country’s tremendous export growth. However, like Hong Kong, Busan is competing with the mega-Chinese ports of Shanghai and Ningbo-Zhoushan for “hub port” vessel calls. And in both size and efficiency, the Chinese ports out-perform their Korean competitors. Conversely the Korean Port of Incheon’s throughput rose from 3.17 million TEUs to 3.45 million TEUs over 2022 to 2023.

Middle East/India

Both the Middle East and the India Subcontinent are experiencing rising port investment and TEU throughput. In the Middle East, Dubai’s Port Jebel Ali slipped past Hong Kong into the number nine slot with 14.72 million TEUs. The port has also become part of a “solution” for some services seeking to avoid the Red Sea and Houthis disruption. Further the UAE-India CEPA deal has benefited the two regions and bolstered port numbers. And the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah is handling approximately 6 million TEUs, while King Abdullah port over 3 million and Dammam 2.3 million TEUs. And the Port of Khalifa in Abu Dhabi is at 4.91million TEUs.

In India, Mundra (Adani Port) has grown rapidly and is estimated to handle 7 million TEUs while the port of Jawaharlal Nehru is handling around 6.4 million.

And in Sri Lanka the Port of Colombo with 6.9 million is climbing up the chart and is now 27th.

The Houthis actions have had an impact on ship calls for Red Sea ports and Suez Canal transits, not to mention Mediterranean Sea ports as well. However, investment in the port infrastructure in Middle East has continued to rise even with the disruptions which begs the question of just what will ship traffic look like in the Red Sea region in a “normalized” economic environment?

European Ports

The European ports have all been impacted by both the Red Sea disruptions and their effect on the Suez Canal transit and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In addition, economic disputes with China have escalated and begun to have an impact. As a result, many of the North European ports saw their numbers in 2023 slip, with little prospect of recovery in 2024. For example, the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port, which ranked 12th in the Top 100 list, registered 13.44 million TEUs in 2023, down from over 14.45 million in 2022. Antwerp-Bruges, 14th on the top 100 list also showed a similar decline from 13.50 million TEUs in 2022 to 12.53 million TEUs in 2023. The Port of Hamburg’s numbers also told the same story going from 8.27 million TEUs to 7.7 million TEUs over the same two year period.

The real exception to this trend is the north Mediterranean Port of Tanger Med in Morocco. Tanger Med, ranked 20th on the list, continued its upward trajectory rising from 7.6 million TEUs to 8.61 million TEUs. The port’s growth as the “hub” of choice for the western Mediterranean bodes well for growth and a chance in the not too distant future to hit the exclusive 10 million TEU mark. Another European port that managed to post better numbers in 2023 was Marsaxlokk in Malta, that went from 2.89 million TEUs to 2.99 million over the same period. Other European ports like Valencia, Algeciras, Bremerhaven, Barcelona, and Piraeus also experienced a slip in numbers. The Turkish port Ambarli, ranked 55 on the list, also posted a gain going from 2.87million TEUs to 3.31million TEUs. While other Turkish ports were either reported with flat throughput or showed slight improvements over the period.

North America

North American ports like those in Europe have been impacted by multiple disruptions like the low water in the Panama Canal restricting ship traffic, the aforementioned Red Sea and Suez Canal problems and the subsequent diversions around Africa, the trade war with China, and the closure of the Port of Baltimore following the MV collision with the Francis Scott Key Bridge. These disrupting forces have had various impacts on North American container ports. A few years ago, there was talk of the rise of East Coast ports over the West Coast. But with the low water in the Panama Canal, there were shifts back to the West Coast ports. The closure of the Port of Baltimore resulted in a redistribution of boxships on the East Coast (but since this occurred in 2024, it won’t be reflected in the current list) and the overall downturn in trade hurt nearly all the North American ports.

The San Pedro Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are a case in point. The Port of LA, ranked 19th on the list, handled 8.63 million TEUs in 2023 down from the 9.91 in 2022. But it is likely that LA will rebound when the numbers are tallied for 2024 as in the first quarter the port throughput was 743,417 TEUs up over 19% over 2023. Similarly, neighboring Long Beach, number 22 on the list, handled 9.13 million TEUs in 2022 and just over 8 million TEUs in 2023. And like LA, the Port of Long Beach rebounded and moved 2,002,820 TEUs in the first quarter of 2024, up 16.4% from 2023.

The impact of the disruptions and the post-COVID economic reset also took its toll on East Coast ports. The Port of New York/New Jersey throughput fell from 9.43 million TEUs in 2022, good for the second spot in the country in 2022, to 7.81 million TEUs, placing the port third in North America behind Long Beach. Still the Port of New York/New Jersey also seems to be in the midst of a big rebound as the port ended the 1st quarter with a March total of 701,648 TEUs, a 22% increase over March 2023. For the quarter the Port posted just over 2 million TEUs, 12% higher than 2023.

Like New York/New Jersey, the Port of Savannah is rebounding. Savannah’s box total fell from 5.89 million TEUs in 2022 to 4.93 million in 2023. But in the first quarter of 2024, each month was better than 2023, and accounted for a total of 1,756,676 TEUs, representing an 11% increase.

In explaining the box shipment rebound, Ben Hackett, in the recent Global Tracker Report said, “Imports of containerized goods at U.S. ports are booming, with particularly strong growth on the West Coast,” Adding, “In the last couple of years, we have witnessed a flattened peak season that has stretched out the volume of imports over extra months versus the strong, consolidated surge seen in the past. Reasons range from retailers restocking following strong sales after the pandemic to trying to get ahead of increased tariffs on goods from China set to take effect in August and ensuring sufficient inventories for the holiday season amid strong consumer demand.” (Also see Peter Goldin article, Descartes Report Reveals Supply Chain Unpredictability on page 8).

South and Central America

The Panama Canal ports were hit with low water and an economic downturn in 2023 into 2024. Colon Ports tallied 3.96 million TEUs a slight downturn from 2022 while the Balboa cluster hit 2.3 million TEUs up from the 2.1 million TEUs in 2022. With the Panama Canal water levels higher now and trade brisker, the prospects for 2024/25 look promising providing the rainy season brings the expected rain.

The Brazilian Port of Santos ranked number 42 on the list, at 4.28 million TEUs in 2023, it was off from the 4.51 million TEUs handled the year before. Similar to other ports in the world, Santos looks to do better in 2024 with the general economic uptick. The Argentine Port of Buenos Aires was also slightly down going from 1.36 million TEUs to nearly 1.28 million in in 2023.

Unlike many ports in the world, the Colombian Port of Cartagena continued to increase its throughput in 2023 to nearly 3.3 million TEUs. As did the Peruvian Port of Callao which went from 2.41 million TEUs to 2.70 million TEUs in 2023. Another South America port doing well in 2023 was Guayaquil in Ecuador which rose from 2.1 million TEUs to 2.54 million TEUs in 2023.