i.1 – Defining Seaports

Authors: Dr. Theo Notteboom, Dr. Athanasios Pallis and Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

A seaport is a node in global supply chains with a strong maritime character and a functional and spatial clustering of port-related activities.

1. What is a Seaport?

The seaport has a long history going back to the early days of human endeavors. As soon as civilizations emerged across the world, trade networks supported by ports emerged as well. Although maritime transport technology has evolved substantially, the role and function of ports remain relatively similar. Conventionally, a port is defined as a transit area, a gateway through which goods and people move from and to the sea. It is a place of contact between the land and maritime space, a node where ocean and inland transport systems interact, and a place of convergence for different transportation modes. Since maritime and inland transportation modes have different capacities, the port assumes the role of a point of load break where cargo is consolidated or deconsolidated.

Even if the term port appears generic, it expresses a substantial diversity of sizes and functions. Ports also have a geographical diversity in terms of the sites being used for port activities, which can range from rivers, bays to offshore locations. They are complex and multi-faceted and can be approached primarily from a supply chain perspective, which leads to the following definition:

A seaport is a logistic and industrial node in global supply chains with a strong maritime character and a functional and spatial clustering of activities directly or indirectly linked to transportation, transformation, and information processes within global supply chains.

Defining the Seaport

A modern seaport is not regarded solely as a load breakpoint in various supply chains but should be considered a value-adding transit point. As nodes within transportation and logistics networks, ports have a location, whose relative importance can fluctuate given economic, technical, and political changes. This location tries to capitalize on the advantages of a port site characterized by fundamental physical features influencing the nautical profile, such as water depth, access channels, and available land.

2. Typologies of Seaports

An approach to understanding the diversity of ports is their classification into typologies to analyze their specific role and functions. Conventionally, ports can be categorized based on a large number of dimensions, such as:

  • Scale. Refers to an assessment of port size in terms of its area, annual cargo throughput, the size of its hinterland, the number of shipping services it is connected to, or the number of customers. The scale of a port is commonly associated with its economic and commercial importance in the market it serves.
  • Geographical attributes. Refers to the main characteristics of the port site and situation. Coastal and inland geography conditions create variety in the locational setting of port sites, such as in a bay, along a coastline, on a river, or in an estuary. Many sites have natural advantages, while for others, the site needs to be improved with dredging and landfills. Although a port site is fixed in space, its situation is relative to the main shipping lanes and hinterland, or its proximity to and interactions with cities or urban conurbations.
  • Governance and institutional settings. Refers to the terms of land ownership and the roles of institutional arrangements between the public and private sectors. Many ports are publicly owned but have terminals operated by private organizations.
  • Port functions. Refers to the range of services offered by the port, such as cargo handling, logistics, and distribution, industry, and maritime services. They are subject to competitive pressures since the services offered by a port can be offered by another port.
  • Specialization. Refers to the cargo handled, such as containers, conventional general cargo, liquid bulk, dry bulk, or roll-on-roll-off cargo. Some ports are specialized in handling passenger traffic, namely cruise ships and ferries. Another specialization concerns port-centric industries such as steel plants, energy plants, automotive, or chemical industries. Further, logistics activities are an important contributor to port specialization.

Through generations of port development, port functions have changed and expanded, responding to technical, economic, and social developments. From the traffic being generated, functions such as trade, distribution, and industry have emerged in seaports, broadening and deepening their functions. In recent decades, the main driving forces include containerization, diversification of cargo types and equipment, intermodal transport, and information technologies. Port functions are extended to trade, logistics, and production centers with an extensive portfolio of operations, including production, trade, and service industries. Some seaports have grown to become industrial complexes comprising a large number of industrial activities.

Successive stages in port development in part coordinated by different economic opportunities have favored the setting of a hierarchy of ports, ranging from small ports servicing a niche market to large gateways servicing a vast area composed of an extensive range of economic activities. Like most hierarchies, there are a small number of very large ports accounting for a significant share of the total traffic and many small ports that account for limited traffic. For instance, in 2019, the 20 largest container ports accounted for 44% of the total traffic, reflecting a well-established hierarchy. This does not imply that small ports are of limited importance for the economies they serve. Small islands and nation-states have a high dependence on their ports to access global markets.

From a supply chain perspective, seaports are increasingly functioning not as individual places that handle ships but as turntables within global supply chains and global transportation networks. The contemporary port (labeled fourth-generation port) is characterized as a platform commanding freight flows and requiring knowledge-intensive coordination activities. A seaport is not self-contained as port activities contribute to the industrial and logistics development in the port areas and its hinterland. Thus, ports act as service centers and logistics platforms for international trade and transport.

In recent decades ports have been subject to a wave of reforms that reflects the increasing business and market-oriented approach to port management. From governance and institutional perspectives, many ports have become independent commercial organizations aiming at profitability, cost recovery, and customer service.

3. Port Systems: Beyond Individual Seaports

Seaports are part of a system with specific spatial and functional characteristics, supporting global logistics and transport networks. They interact with other nodes such as overseas and neighboring seaports, intermodal terminals, and inland logistics platforms. Seaports are subject to three types of functional interdependences with other nodes:

  • Chain networks. Ports are nodes part of a sequence of flows where the output of one node in the network is the input for another. An example is a relation between container ports and inland load centers. Rotterdam services of a chain of inland terminals along with the Rhine river, a role similarly assumed by Shanghai for inland terminals along the Yangtze River. Chain networks also apply for trans-ocean relations, including deepsea liner services such as the Rotterdam – Singapore chain supporting the Europe-Far East trade.
  • Hierarchical networks. Ports are nodes part of different connectivity levels, implying that some locations can be reached indirectly as opposed to directly. An example is the hub-feeder port relations in container shipping, such as the South Korean container port Busan and smaller feeder ports in Northeast Asia.
  • Transactional networks. Ports are nodes in a system of commercial relations where they can be competitive or complementary. They use advantages such as location, cost, and productivity to attract or retain shipping services and traffic.

The above underlines that ports rarely operate in isolation from other ports but are part of complex networks of interactions. A port system can be defined as a system of two or more ports located in proximity within a given area. They can relate to a complete coastline such as the West coast of North America. The port range is one of the largest consistent port systems.

A port range can be defined as a group of ports situated along the same seashore and potentially sharing access to a hinterland.

There are many maritime ranges worldwide, each with its inherent geographical, economic, and functional characteristics. The Hamburg-Le Havre range in Europe is a typical example, which can be expanded to include the Gdansk-Le Havre range. An acute intra-range competition can be observed at the multi-port gateway level.

A multi-port gateway region refers to a group of ports in proximity competing for the same port calls and hinterland. It has a smaller geographical scale than a container port range. The locational relationship to nearby identical traffic hinterlands is one of the criteria that can be used to group adjacent container ports into the same multi-port gateway region. The port-calling patterns in the maritime service networks and hinterland connectivity profile can also help group ports to a multi-port gateway region.

Typical examples include the Rhine-Scheldt Delta (Belgium and the Netherlands) and the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta in China. A port range can be home to several multi-port gateway regions. For example, the Gdansk-Le Havre range includes the multi-port gateway regions of the Gdansk Bay in Poland, North-Germany, the Rhine-Scheldt Delta, and the Seine Estuary in France.

Inland nodes and feeder ports are also considered as part of the port system. They are competing to attract economic activities associated with seaports, which leads to functional changes in the port system. These nodes can also co-operate and coordinate their development by bundling transport flows and offering land for development. This gives economic activities such as manufacturing and logistics a range of locational options for nodes that are the most suitable to their operational and market access needs.

Related Topics


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