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Water transportation industry - statistics & facts

Water transportation has been a crucial way of moving commodities, products, and people for millennia. Nowadays, vital commodities such as coal, oil, and gas are carried by ships to fuel the global economy. In 2020 alone, some 1.2 million metric tons of coal and almost 1.9 million metric tons of oil were transported via waterways. Even more importantly, around 80 percent of all goods are transported by sea, mainly by container ships. Compared to other modes of freight transport, ships have a vast capacity that makes them more economical and suitable for transporting large, heavy, and bulky items, while producing a relatively small amount of emissions. In 2018, shipping accounted for about 11 percent of global transportation emissions, less than road and air transport.

The water transportation industry is arguably one of the most complex transportation industries. It involves many parties – such as carriers, ports, tug operators, and freight forwarders – that all need to cooperate for the whole supply chain to function. This complexity makes the water transportation industry fairly fragile. Any disruption to a link in the supply chain causes knock-on effects down the line. This became especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic and the blockage of the Suez Canal in March 2021.

Impact of COVID-19 on sea freight transport

The COVID-19 pandemic affected many industries, and the maritime freight transport industry was no exception. Shortly after the global COVID-19 pandemic broke out, many expected that the fear of economic recession would cause maritime trade to decrease. However, as more people were being forced to stay at home due to lockdowns, the demand for consumer electronics – such as televisions, gaming consoles, laptops, and monitors – spiked. Since these goods mostly originate in Asia and are transported to Western markets by container ships, this growing demand for consumer goods led to an increase in container trade.

However, container carriers could not increase their capacity fast enough to meet the demand for shipping, resulting in a drastic increase in freight rates. Just between August 2020 and August 2021, the price for shipping a 40' container increased five-fold, surpassing 10,000 U.S. dollars. Consequently, shipping companies are making record profits, reporting operating profit margins of over 44 percent in the second quartal of 2021. Although container carriers are using these profits to increase their capacity by placing orders for new container ships, finishing these ships will take several years. Moreover, the capacity of container ports is relatively finite and is expected to increase only by about ten percent between 2019 and 2024. Unpredictable incidents such as port closures, port congestions, and extreme weather events further exacerbate the situation.

Impact of COVID-19 on passenger water transport

During the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, passenger travel all around the world became limited, severely affecting the global passenger transportation and tourist industry. The number of passengers traveling by air decreased dramatically in 2020, and the forecasts for 2021 promise only a slight improvement. Passenger water transport was severely hit as well. With fewer people going on vacations abroad, the number of passengers using ferries decreased virtually all around the world, including popular ferry lines such as the ones from the United Kingdom to France and Denmark to Sweden. The cruise industry, a favorite way of travel especially for Americans and Germans, has witnessed a similar problem. In 2020, there were only about 5.8 million cruise ship passengers worldwide, down from some 29.7 million the previous year.


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