Whilst it is generally agreed that future container demand growth will not be as strong as the boom periods of the 1990s and 2000s, global container port demand is still forecast to exceed 800 million TEU a year by 2017, growing by just over 5 percent per year. To put this growth into context, the 186 million TEU which this growth represents is the equivalent of the entire throughput of all Chinese ports in 2012. Or to put it another way, it is more than the entire 2012 throughput of North America, Europe and the Middle East combined. This illustrates what a colossal industry the container port business has become - something that is often overlooked because it is geographically fragmented across nearly 1,300 terminals across the world and so the collective industry is somewhat under the radar. Even modest demand growth now generates huge absolute increases in volumes therefore.
At the same time, container ship sizes are increasing dramatically. The largest container ship in the world fleet has quadrupled in size since 1992, and in the Asia-Europe trade lane it has doubled in the last 10 years. This in turn has triggered the formation of ever larger operational alliances, most notably the P3 alliance between Maersk, MSC and CMA CGM. The resultant rampant and rapid cascading of larger ships into secondary trade lanes is likely to create more port problems and challenges than the 18,000-TEU monsters destined for the Asia-Europe trade lane.
Drewry senior analyst Neil Davidson says, "Container terminal operators remain successful and highly active but there are many changes coming: Changes in ownership as cash-strapped shipping lines are forced to sell more stakes in their terminals, and aggressive terminal buyers chase expansion opportunities.
"Changes in operations and infrastructure as ever larger container ships have to be accommodated not just in Europe and Asia but around the world.
"Changes in demand as modest growth still generates large absolute volume increases. For example, even if they only perform at the world average, Shanghai or Singapore will add almost 10 million TEU to their total throughput by 2017. A figure of 10 million TEU is more than the entire container port throughput of the UK, India or Brazil. "
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