Italian Maritime Economy: the challenges of competitiveness and sustainability

Italian Maritime Economy 2021: the challenges of competitiveness and sustainability. New report analyses the maritime logistics system and Recovery Plan opportunities for growth in Italy and its southern regions

The balance of global maritime trade has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, yet the sea continues to play a key role in trade and Asia remains the largest player in the container segment.

Demand picked up in the container segment – which is the preferred mode of transport for global trade in goods – starting in July 2020, especially from Europe and North America, leading it to close 2020 down just 1.1%.

Forecasts predict growth of 8.7% in 2021 and 4.7% in 2022.

The eighth Annual Report on the Italian Maritime Economy, prepared by SRM – the research centre linked to the Intesa Sanpaolo Group – analyses the phenomena that emerged during the pandemic and the events that are impacting the maritime logistics system, such as the blockage of the Suez Canal, increases in maritime freight rates and the price of oil, port congestion and blank sailing.

The Study – which includes contributions from the universities of Hamburg and Antwerp as well as the Shanghai International Shipping Institute – also looks at the recovery and the post-pandemic future, highlighting the challenges that await Italy in terms of competitiveness and sustainability, and the opportunities for ports and logistics thanks to the National Recovery and Resilience Plan to contribute to  the growth of Italy and the South in particular.

The main points of the Report are:

  • Maritime transport continues to be the main vehicle for the development of international trade: 90% of goods travel by sea. Maritime transport and logistics account for about 12% of global GDP
  • Maritime traffic volumes are estimated to increase by 4.2% in 2021, to reach 12 billion tons, above pre-Covid-19 levels. For 2022, estimates call for a further increase of 3.1%
  • In 2025, container volumes worldwide will grow at an annual average rate of 4.8%, to reach 1 billion TEU (Europe +3.9%, Africa +4.9%, Far East +5.3%, Middle East +4% and North America +3.6%)
  • In the year of the pandemic, the Suez Canal showed remarkable resilience, exceeding one billion tons of cargo, with nearly 19,000 ships passing through. It therefore remained a strategic hub for traffic in the Mediterranean, representing 12% of world traffic and 7-8% of oil traffic
  • Congested ports due to outbreaks, sharp rises in freight rates, a dearth of empty containers and blank sailing (cancelled routes) were the major phenomena that impacted the balance of maritime traffic, especially on the Far East-Mediterranean and Far-East USA routes
  • Freight rates reached record levels on the main routes and do not yet show signs of slowing down: they are estimated to be high in 2021 at +22.6% with a readjustment of -9.4% in 2022
  • Naval gigantism and the dominance of major alliances on strategic routes continue; orders for ships over 15,000 TEUs are expected to grow by +17% by 2023
  • Rail transport on the China-Europe route (and in the reverse direction) increased considerably. In the first quarter of 2021, the number of freight trains hit a record 3,345, up 79% over the same period in 2020
  • The redefinition of some supply chains on a regional scale will bring some sectors back to Europe, and this could further promote the growth of short sea shipping, in which the Mediterranean already has a leading position in Europe
  • In Italy, the international component of maritime transport remains significant. In 2020, Italy's seaborne trade amounted to over €206 bn, a -17% decrease versus 2019. In the first quarter of 2021, seaborne imports and exports were up 3%
  • The ports of Southern Italy, with 207 million tons of goods handled in 2020, account for 47% of total Italian traffic. The South showed greater resilience during the pandemic: the drop in southern ports was -3.4% compared to around -10% in Italy
  • Companies in Southern Italy use the maritime route more intensively than the rest of the country in their import-export relations. In fact, 57% of the South's interchange takes place by sea (for a value of €42 billion) compared to 33% in Italy
  • The restarting of SEZs and the use of Recovery Plan funds for port infrastructure amounting to over €3.8 billion will be fundamental for the growth of the South. Investments in LNG and hydrogen are strategic imperatives to compete with a vision of the future.


Click here to download the Report Summary in Italian.