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Inefficient maritime transport structures hamper trade of small island developing countries

28 October 1997

Overall world seaborne trade in 1997 is expected to notch-up its fastest growth rate since 1990, growing by 3.8 per cent over the previous year to reach 4.94 billion metric tons. This year´s anticipated growth marks a substantial recovery from the 2.3 per cent increase recorded in 1996. If confirmed, it will also be above the annual average of 3.7 per cent achieved during the previous decade.

As the medium-term forecast for the coming decade is for an average annual growth of 3.9 per cent in the main sectors of world seaborne trade, the overall figure for 1997 -- announced today by UNCTAD in its Review of Maritime Transport, 1997 (1)(140 pp) -- could mark the start of a period of steady expansion in the years ahead.

The Review is an annual publication from UNCTAD, giving trends in seaborne trade and analysing the comparative performance of different geographic regions. It focuses in particular on the situation of developing countries. This year, it examines the way in which high transportation costs are impeding the development of small island developing countries, for whom UNCTAD plays a monitoring role within the UN system.

Breaking down the aggregate 1996 figures, the Review reports that the main driving forces behind that year´s performance were the shipment of growing volumes of manufactured goods in containerized form (up 4.0 per cent over 1995) and reasonably strong demand for tanker shipments (up by 3.8 per cent). Dragging down the year´s figures, however, was the poor performance of dry bulk cargo shipments, which rose by a paltry 1.1 per cent. This was mainly due to declines in iron ore and grain shipments, which fell by 3.1 per cent and 4.1 per cent respectively.

In 1997, these trends are expected to reverse themselves. While tanker demand is expected to weaken, growing at only 2.4 per cent, dry cargo looks set for its second strongest performance in a decade; increasing overall by 5.1 per cent, strong demand for main bulk commodities will be mainly responsible.

For the developing countries, the latest figures from UNCTAD confirm the remarkably steady share of seaborne trade they have maintained during the 1990s. Despite the fast growth until recently of much of Southeast and East Asia, and the fluctuating performance of the African and Latin American economies, statistics show that over this period the developing countries have maintained an approximate 50 - 51 per cent share of cargo loaded, and 26 - 27 per cent share of cargo unloaded. The heavy weight of the oil trade in the shipping to and from developing countries is key to this statistical stability.

For the record: in 1997, developing countries´ share of seaborne cargo unloaded is expected to edge downwards, from 51.3 to 50.7 per cent. As for cargo loaded, this too will likely decline fractionally, from 26.7 to 26.5 per cent, continuing a modest downward trend.

Looking into the regional variations among developing countries, in 1996, the share of Asian countries in both goods loaded and unloaded decreased marginally, to 26.6 per cent and 17.7 per cent respectively. In the Americas, goods loaded showed a modest increase, from 13.1 to 13.5 per cent, while in Africa there was a significant jump, from 10.1 to 10.8 per cent.

Developing countries improve fleet ownership position due to maritime investment in Asian countries

The world merchant fleet continued to expand to 758.2 million deadweight tons (dwt) by the end of 1996. At 3.2 per cent, the rate of tonnage increase was slightly higher than that of seaborne trade, resulting in marginally decreasing productivity of the world fleet. The volume of cargo carried per dwt slightly decreased to 6.28 in 1996 from the record level of 6.33 reached in 1995. Another performance indicator, ton-miles per dwt, also declined in 1996, to 27,097, from the 1995 record of 27,675 ton-miles per dwt.

Analysis of the regional structure of the world fleet shows a moderate increase in the share of developing countries in 1996. They expanded their fleet to 147.5 million dwt, representing 19.5 per cent of the world fleet, compared to 18.7 per cent in 1995. This development was augmented by qualitative improvements, particularly in the containership sectors, where their share increased to 18.1 per cent. Investment in new tonnage has helped to reduce the average age of the container fleet to 12.1 years, which is in line with the world average.

Regional ownership patterns, however, remain problematic and unbalanced. In particular, container tonnage is concentrated in Asian developing countries. They own 14.4 per cent of the world container tonnage, or 80 per cent of the developing countries´ fleet, while African developing countries own virtually no container tonnage at all.

Focus on small island developing States(2)

  • Growth in trade with developing countries
  • In a special chapter the 1997 issue of the Review focuses on the maritime problems of small island developing States. The development of these countries and their integration in the world economy is nearly exclusively dependent on access to inter-island and international shipping services.

    Total exports of goods of small island developing States increased at about 11.5 per cent annually for the period 1988 - 1994, with the fastest growth being in manufactures (an average annual growth rate of 17.2 per cent). The direction of exports changed over the period 1988 - 1994. In 1988, developed market-economy countries imported about 56 per cent of small island developing States´ exports. However, by 1994, the developed market-economy countries´ share had declined to 44.5 per cent. Making up the difference were the other developing countries whose share of small island developing States´ exports jumped from 39.9 per cent in 1988 to 51.8 per cent in 1994.

    Meanwhile small island developing States´ total imports also increased at an annual average rate of 8.9 per cent over the period 1988 - 1994. Manufactured goods accounted for the largest share of imports (81 per cent in 1994).

  • Their fleet is ageing and needs replacement
  • Fleet statistics pertaining to the group of small island developing States are distorted by the widespread offer of open-registry facilities by some countries in this group. True ownership of tonnage remains minimal. Even though their foreign trade is nearly exclusively dependent on the availability of maritime transport services, their participation therein is negligible. However, a large number of vessels of less than 100 gross registered tons (grt) are operating in many small island developing States, serving local markets. The age of the fleet of 100 grt and above is the second qualitative factor. Almost 50 per cent of the merchant fleet is 15 years old or over. This ageing fleet leads to higher operating costs, as repair and maintenance rapidly increase with age. Schedule delays and unreliability, as well as greater environmental risks, are associated with obsolete vessels.

  • High freight costs due to inefficient maritime transport and port infrastructure
  • Efficient maritime transport systems and port infrastructure are particularly important for small island developing States. Current handicaps include high distribution costs, lack of reliable shipping services, expensive transhipment charges, inadequate port facilities, weak maritime administration and the absence of economies of scale when negotiating freight rates with shipping lines. Freight costs as a percentage of total import values can be as high as 11 per cent, compared with 4.2 per cent for developed market-economy countries and 8.3 per cent for developing countries as a whole. The more remote small island countries incur even higher freight costs, ranging from 12 to 18 per cent of import value.

    Restructuring trends in the international liner shipping industry are another factor affecting the transportation capabilities of many small island developing States. Over the last decade, agreements between large container operators have resulted in a concentration of services. This has created economies of scale for them, and encouraged the expansion of hub-and-spoke service patterns between major trading areas.

    For small island developing States, however, the consequence has been an increased need for transhipment port services, the acquisition of vessels with container-lifting capabilities, investment in electronic data interchange (EDI) technology and the training of management personnel. Without the necessary investments in infrastructure and technology, the prospects of many small island developing States to trade effectively, and sustain development, will diminish.


1. The Review of Maritime Transport, 1997 (Sales No. E.97.II.D.9) may be obtained at the price of US$50, from: United Nations Publications, Sales Section, T: +1 212 963 8302, F: +1 212 963 3489, E: publications@un.org, on Internet : UN Publications or United Nations Sales and Marketing Section - Room DC2-853 Two United Nations Plaza New York N.Y. 10017 - U.S.A., F: 41 22 907 0027, E: unpubli@unog.ch.

2. Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Cape Verde, Comoros, Cook Islands, Cuba, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Dominica, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Kiribati, Maldives, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Nauru, Netherlands Antilles, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tokelau, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Trust Territory of the Pacific Island of Palau, Tuvalu, United States Virgin Islands, Vanuatu.

For more information, please contact:
Transport Section, Trade Infrastructure Branch, Mr. Isao Onuki
Division for Services Infrastructure for Development and Trade Efficiency, UNCTAD
T: +41 22 917 2061
F: +41 22 907 0050
E: transport.section@unctad.org
Press Officer of UNCTAD, Carine Richard-Van Maele
T: +41 22 917 5816/28
F: +41 22 907 0043
E: press@unctad.org.


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