Shipping ports are strategically located as loading and unloading sites for many different kinds of vessels that carry people and cargo.

By Thomas Gregory Peterson


They are historically significant for promoting globalization, especially in terms of social and economic expansion of various nations all over the world. In fact, a lot of the world’s major cities owe their size and status to their ports.

To this day, ports that support major shipping routes continue to allow trade and commerce to thrive on a worldwide scale.

The word “port” is derived from the Latin term portus, which translates to gate or gateway. By its very etymology’s, it only makes sense that ports have become a point of convergence between one place and another.

Ports from years past

Over the course of many centuries, seaports have played a key role as safe docking locations for fishing ships, for migration of citizens from various parts of the world, as well as in warfare. At the height of industrialization, many of those that are located in the most ideal territories soon became trade hubs.

In the past, port locations were limited to a number of areas that were dictated solely by its geography. Prior to the industrial revolution, port locations were frequently on upstream sites like London on the Thames river, or Guangzhou on the Pearl river.

Ports that were located on tidal waterways posed a challenge for ships carrying massive amounts of goods because of the daily rise and fall cycle of water levels.  To solve this problem and create more trading opportunities, enclosed docks equipped with lock gates were developed in the 1800’s.

During the break-bulk cargo era (before containerization was introduced in the 1950’s), ports were typically constructed with wood to lower costs. Also, there was no real need for heavy-duty amenities yet, since cargo that was being transported within the facility only weighed up to half a ton, or a ton at most—which was relatively light compared to today’s maximum loads.

At that time, goods had to be manually loaded and unloaded. Freight came in sacks and different sizes of crates and barrels. The cargo shipments were loaded by longshoremen on their backs, or with pulleys and slides to lift bagged freight into the unstandardized vessels. The cargo these port workers loaded into the ships came straight from warehouses near the docks which were prevalent then, to ensure that the goods were protected from the elements and thieves.

Loading cargo into ships was a slow, labor-intensive process. Because of this, vessels spent many days, and even weeks in ports. Also, during this period, merchandise was still prone to damage and theft despite security methods in place.

The impact of containerization and standardization in shipping

Worldwide port operations have been significantly transformed by containerization. Not only has the structure and configuration of ports changed, it has also optimized the whole shipping process.

The eventual shift from break-bulk ports to container terminals, as well as standardization at the start of the 60’s gradually changed port layouts, as well as the factors for choosing locations.

Currently, major seaports are outfitted with special fixtures like forklifts, large storage areas for stacking containers dockside, as well as different-sized cranes to be able to deal with many types of cargo. Ships now typically only spend 24 hours docked on ports, which reduced the amount of time spent loading and unloading during the break-bulk cargo loading system, ten-fold.

Factors that define port categorization

The first major factor considered in categorizing ports include its maritime access, which refers to the capacity of the port site. In this aspect, tidal range, or the discrepancy of water depth between high and low tide is included.

Second is the maritime interface, which identifies the space allotment made to support the load capacity of the port. This is also known as the size of the shoreline that will allow optimal maritime access to cargo.

The third major consideration when categorizing ports is the equipment and facilities, or its infrastructure. The best ports have piers, storage areas, basins, warehouses, stacking yards, rails for access. These are furnished with industrial grade equipment like gantry cranes, as well as straddle carriers to move various sizes of containers within the terminal grounds. There are also automated terminals designed especially for stacking yards, which have automated vehicles, as well as cranes.

Fourth but not least in considering port categorization is its access to land. The port should be accessible to industrial areas and commercial markets to allow it to thrive and grow.

Top world-class ports for cargo transportation

We list some of the most important shipping ports that play a major part in today’s freight transportation industry. The ports on this list have been selected based on their impressive maritime access, maritime interface, their infrastructure, land access, as well as their historical value.

Port of Shanghai, China

With an area that spans over 2,200 square miles, the largest port in China is also the busiest port in the world. With a central location along the Chinese coastline and the Yangtze River Delta, this bustling harbour handles approximately a quarter of China’s international trade volume, with an average daily cargo value of more than $1 billion.

As of 2018, its recorded maximum container volume is at 42.01 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). This port has around 125 berths that can handle more than 2,000 container ships per month.

2. Port of Jebel Ali, Dubai

Originally opened in 1979 to help with the operations of Port Rashid, Jebel Ali in Dubai is a major port that is known to be the biggest manmade harbour in the Middle East. Jebel Ali serves a vital port for oil trade. Although it is a relatively new player in the shipping industry, it can handle an impressive container volume of over 14.95 million TEUs (as of 2018).

3. Port of Guangzhou, China

Another major port in China is the port of Guangzhou, which covers over 250 miles of coastline. It is located in the southern part of China, specifically in the Pearl River delta. With a container volume of over 21.87 million TEUs in 2018, it is notable for connecting more than one hundred ports within the country, and over 350 ports across the globe.

4. Port of Hong Kong

Ranked as one of the top world ports since the late 1980’s, the port of Hong Kong connects the small, bountiful region to more than 400 locations globally. It has nine container terminals located right along the Kwai Chung-Tsing Yi basin, which handles around 300 container services weekly. It handled cargo with a volume of 19,60 TEUs in 2018.

5. Port of Singapore

Singapore may be a small country, but its port was once the largest in the world. It can handle large amounts of cargo, pegged at a total of over 36.6 million TEUs in the past year. Connecting over 123 countries and around 600 ports all over the world, the port of Singapore is also known to have the world’s biggest refrigerated container ports. This shipping port is also equipped with around 200 cranes to efficiently handle huge cargo volumes.

6.  Port of Qingdao, China

Operating since 1892, the Quingdao’s port connects over 700 ports to the region. It has a recorded container volume of over 18.26 million TEUs as of 2018.  The whole port of Qingdao includes the Quingdao Old Port, the Huangdao Oil Port, as well as the Qianwan New Port.

7. Port of Rotterdam, Holland

The Port of Rotterdam is the biggest port in Europe when it comes to cargo capacity, handling 14.51 TEUs in cargo volume back in 2018. They are consistent with expansion efforts to accommodate more and more vessels. As one of Europe’s deepest ports, the port of Rotterdam is considered as a vital trade hub for importing and exporting products in the continent.

8. Port of Busan, South Korea

Handling over 20 million TEUs annually, the port of Busan is one of the world’s fastest growing shipping ports. It is strategically situated in South Korea’s southern end, right at the juncture of the Sea of Japan, and the China Sea. Its expansion has made it one of the most competitive transhipment hubs in the world.

9. Ambarli, Turkey

Ambarli in Turkey is the largest port in the country. It might not have the same TEU capacities as the world’s largest ports, but it is included in the list for its historical value. As one of the oldest ports in recorded history, Ambaril has played a major part in worldwide shipping for many centuries, helping spread European influence in different parts of the globe.

10.  Port of New York-New Jersey, United States

The biggest port in the East Coast is considered the birthplace of modern containerization. This is where the Ideal X ship made its maiden voyage in 1956. Its 2016 cargo value was pegged at $187.7 billion, while its cargo volume was recorded at 7.20 million TEUs in 2018.

11. Port of Los Angeles, United States

With over 43 miles of coastline, the Port of Los Angeles belongs to the top 20 ports in the world. Handling cargo from vessels that originate in Asian ports, this trade hub is equipped with more than 200 ship berths. It also has its own rail system for transporting goods, that stretches for over 113 miles.

The most important ports for freight transportation deal with various goods like fuel, food products, livestock, automobiles, chemicals, and other dry goods. If you are on the hunt for reliable, safe storage for your products while in transit, check out BSL’s wide selection of shipping containers and choose the perfect type for your product category.

Thomas Gregory Peterson is currently working at BSL Containers. He is also a freelance writer and most of his work focuses on transportation, trade and logistics industry. For his pastimes, he is an avid lover of reading, music, and traveling.

Shipping stock photo by MAGNIFIER/Shutterstock