TEU throughput versus boxship arrivals

How container port figures stacked up in 2021 - reduced port calls and increased container throughput

By Penny Thomas

January 20, 2022

In transit blog_MarineTraffic_containershipsTEU

Image: The port of Ningbo-Zhoushan saw 10,177 container vessel calls in 2021 according to MarineTraffic AIS data. Photo: Lightrain/ Shutterstock

China’s container handling statistics seem infallible to the Corona virus-related setbacks seen over the past 12 months. Port closures and congestion, box availability, logistics hiccups and shifting consumer buying patterns have not dampened its throughput figures.

Global ports’ data for 2021 throughputs have been emerging over the past couple of months and the Asian powerhouse’s ports yet again dominate the headlines.

According to Port Technology, China’s Ministry of Transport reported that 259.7 million TEU were handled across its country’s ports between January to November last year - an increase of 7.2% on 2020’s figures.

There are many ways to benchmark the world’s ‘top’ or ‘busiest’ ports, but if considering it from a cargo throughput perspective, then the east coast Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan on the North Pacific Ocean, comes in first in 2021 as it has for over a decade.

According to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, the Zhejiang province port “reached a record high of 1.2 billion metric tons in 2021, up 4.4 per cent year-on-year.”

From a container handling perspective, however, Ningbo-Zhoushan is eclipsed by Shanghai and Singapore.

Shanghai, the world’s ‘biggest’ container port, posted that it handled just over 47 million containers in 2021 - an increase of around 8% on last year’s figures. This growth has been attributed to “Technological support such as automatic terminals and intelligent heavy trucks has played an important role in achieving the growth amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” a port source told Xinhua Net.

Singapore, meanwhile, closed 2021 with its own record container throughput of 37.5 million TEUs.

Ningbo-Zhoushan joined Shanghai and Singapore and passed the 30 million TEU per-year threshold for the first time in December 2021, and eventually posted end of year container volumes of over 31 million TEU. 

The State Council said that these figures represent an 8.2 % year-on-year increase with Ningbo Zhoushan “ranking third globally”.

In transit blog_MarineTraffic_containershipsTEU

Containerships gather around China’s coast. Congestion is due in part to restrictions driven by the Covid-19 pandemic

MarineTraffic containership arrival data broadly correlate with these figures. Data drawn from its AIS-based vessel tracking software based on container vessel arrivals of 9,999 TEU or more shows that Singapore and Shanghai received the most vessels in 2021.

Ningbo-Zhoushan appears further down the list, however, after Busan New Port and Hong Kong. Container throughput data for these two ports was not widely available at time of writing, however, Container News said on 20 July: “Despite liner operators skipping calls to Busan, BPA figures show that container exports from the port actually increased in H1 2021. Transpacific exports totalled 534,000TEU, up 24.2% year-on-year, while exports to Europe went up by nearly 18%, to 326,000TEU”.

Busan handled nearly 22 million TEU in 2020.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, posted that it had handled 16.279 million teu by the end of November. The Hong Kong Maritime Hub noted that “The cumulative total for the first 11 months of the year now stands at 16.279m TEU which reflects a 2% increase for the terminals at Kwai Tsing but a 10% decrease from the midterm operators. The overall total represents a 0.3% fall in throughput compared to last year.”

The list of ports in the MarineTraffic 2021 ‘top nine’ remains unchanged from 2020. Four are Chinese ports and eight are in Asia. Rotterdam is the only non-Asian port to make the list.

Number of container vessel calls

MarineTraffic data_containership arrivals_2021

The Meuse River port situated in the Netherlands broke its own record and that of Europe on 22 December when it handled its 15 millionth container in 2021. The port said in a statement: “The transhipment of containers went through a dip due to the Covid-19 outbreak but, from autumn 2020 onwards, Rotterdam has seen a rapid recovery. When it comes to teu volume, the first nine months of 2021 saw a 7.8% growth. Consumer spending is booming and the economy is recovering with volumes higher than they were in 2019.” 

Moving down the MarineTraffic list, the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung ranked seventh, with 7,434 containerships arriving at its terminals in 2021. The port, situated to the south of the island, is expected to end the year having handled 9.88 million TEU local sources state.

Port Klang, however, may have had fewer ships arrivals, but handled considerably more containers than Kaohsiung. Malaysia’s leading port handled 13.64 million TEU, according to the Maritime Fairtrade. It said: “As of November 2021, Malaysia’s total imports recorded a growth of 5.8 per cent compared to the performance in January to November 2020, while exports saw a growth of 4.8 per cent and transshipment increased by 5.6 per cent”.

Qingdao in China ranks ninth according to MarineTraffic containership port arrivals data (Jan - Dec 22 2021), but with 19.87 million TEUs handled last year it moved more containers than Rotterdam.

Despite ports posting upticks in container volumes, MarineTraffic AIS data reveals that, with the exception of Ningbo-Zhoushan which saw an increase of 3.29% in containership arrivals, there were fewer vessels calling at the ‘top nine’ ports in 2021 than there were in 2020.

This could be attributed to the increasing size of containerships which are able to carry more containers, and thus fewer ships are required. This results in fewer ship calls but higher teu throughput.

Related: The ebbs and flows of ULCVs

Blank sailings, a number of which have been announced since the outbreak of the pandemic, may also be a contributing factor to the drop in vessel calls. 

In a bid to realign their vessels’ sailing schedules due to port bottlenecks, carriers have announced that certain ports will be temporarily dropped from their routes. The 2 M Alliance (Maersk and MSC), THE Alliance - Hapag Lloyd, ONE Yang Ming and HMM) and Ocean Alliance (CMA CGM, Cosco and Evergreen) have all announced blank sailings since the pandemic. Busan port is one destination that has been particularly affected. 

Drewry said last week that of the 73 cancelled sailings recently announced by THE Alliance and Ocean Alliance, 63% will be blank sailings on the Transpacific eastbound trade from Asia to the Americas, with most blanks affecting the west coast of America ports.

China’s mighty ports through which trade moves from east to west may well be handling more containers than ever before, but industry observers fear that congestion woes that hit supply chains last year, are primed to cause more chaos in 2022.

In August the Meidong container terminal at Ningbo-Zhoushan temporarily shut down after a Covid-19 case was confirmed. Vessels were re-routed to other terminals and some were sent to Shanghai, which was experiencing its own congestion challenges.

Related: How port congestion impacts your delays

Both Shanghai and nearby Ningbo-Zhoushan - around 200 km away -  are amongst the worst affected and struggling to keep containers moving as restrictive measures following an outbreak of Covid-19 hampered operations, causing delays and bottlenecks.

The Chinese government’s response to the epidemic could result in the “mother of all supply-chain stumbles” this year, Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economics research at HSBC, told clients last week, reported Fortune

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Penny Thomas

Account Manager at London based public relations agency, Navigate PR

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