Top 15 container ports in the European Union in 2021

Top 15 container ports in the EU in 2021
Source: own compilation based on data port authorities (c) Theo Notteboom

Port performance measurement covers a wide array of key performance indicators (KPIs) related to supply chain performance, productivity, connectivity, sustainability/energy transition, corporate social responsibility (CSR), financial performance, customer satisfaction, innovation and economic impact. Still, it remains relevant to observe how cargo volumes have evolved over time, as cargo flows and related activities remain the bread and butter of many managing bodies of ports. The table shows the container throughput in TEU in 2021 for the top 15 containers ports in the European Union as well as the growth figures for 2020-2021, 2019-2021 and 2007-2020. The year 2007 preceded the financial crisis of 2008-09, while 2019 was the last pre-COVID-19 year.

The top 15 EU ports combined handled 78 million TEU in 2021 or 5% more than in 2020.

The top 15 EU ports combined handled 78 million TEU in 2021 or 5% more than in 2020. The vast majority of top 15 ports recorded positive growth figures in 2021. Looking at the top of the ranking, Rotterdam consolidated its position as the largest European container port in Europe with a strong 7.8% increase in 2021, after having faced a decline of 3.2% in 2020. The port of Antwerp was the only large gateway port in Europe which was able to present positive growth figures (+1.4%) in 2020. Last year, its container volume remained stable at 12 million TEU. The port authorities of Antwerp and Zeebrugge will merge to form Port of Antwerp-Bruges in April this year. Their combined volume reached 14.1 million TEU in 2021 (+1.9%), or some 1.2 million TEU below Rotterdam’s volume. Both Rotterdam and Antwerp handled slightly more volume in 2021 than in 2019, and considerably more containers compared to 2007 (+42% and +47%, respectively).  

Is Hamburg’s revival stalling?

In 2019, changes in the liner service schedules of alliances (partly at the expense of Bremerhaven) and the Elbe deepening and widening program supported Hamburg’s revival. However, COVID-19 year seem to have halted this revival with a 7.9% year-on-year decline in 2020 and a modest 2.2% growth last year. Hamburg’s box volume is still 5.9% below its result in pre-corona year 2009 and even 11.9% below its record year 2007, a sharp contrast when compared to the growth patterns observed in Rotterdam and Antwerp. The gap between Rotterdam and Hamburg now amounts to about 6.6 million TEU, while Antwerp handles 3.3 million TEU more than Hamburg. The top 3 ports in Europe handled 36 million TEU in 2021 (+3.2% compared to 2020 and +0.3% compared to 2019). Bremerhaven climbed one spot in the ranking after realizing a year-on-year growth of 5.5%.

Traffic losses in major transhipment hubs Piraeus, Algeciras and Gioia Tauro

Major transhipment hubs Piraeus, Algeciras and Gioia Tauro recorded a TEU decline in 2021. The steep growth of the port of Piraeus stalled in the past few years with a year-on-year decline of 2.2% in 2021 and 3.8% in 2020. Piraeus lost its 4th position in the ranking to Valencia, although the TEU gap remains small. The Spanish transhipment hub Algeciras was also not able to hold on to its position in the ranking as the port is feeling the full impact of intensified competition for transhipment cargo around the Straits of Gibraltar. While Barcelona, Valencia and Sines handled more transhipment flows in 2021, Algeciras’ throughput fell by 6.1%. The biggest winner in this transhipment region is Tanger Med in Morocco with a 24.3% growth to reach 7.1 million TEU in 2021 (note that Tanger Med grew by 20% in 2020). Mediterranean transhipment hub Gioia Tauro recorded a strong growth in 2020 as Terminal Investment Limited (TiL) became the full owner of Medcenter Container Terminal (“MCT”) at Gioia Tauro after it acquired the 50% stake from Contship Italia in the Summer of 2019. In 2021, Gioia Tauro witnessed a small decline of 1.5%.

Strong comeback champions in the bottom half of the top 15

Most ports in the bottom half of the table recorded a double digit growth. The strong growth in 2021 of Barcelona, Le Havre, Marsaxlokk, Genoa and Gdansk compensates the major traffic losses incurred in 2020. Of all ports in the bottom half of the table, only Genoa did not succeed to post a TEU throughput exceeding the 2019 volume. However, the Genoa figure excludes the nearby Vado Ligure facility managed by the same port system authority. This new facility realized important growth in 2021. The comebacks of Le Havre and Barcelona are quite striking. In 2020, Le Havre initially was heavily affected by the French national strike during December 2019 and January 2020, and later experienced the full impact of the decline in Asian cargo. In 2021, however, the French port recovered strongly with more carriers opting for Le Havre partly due to the supply chain disruptions in other major north European ports. The sharp decline in Barcelona in 2020 was largely attributable to a collapse of transit traffic in the first half of 2020. Import/export containerised cargo flows in the Catalan port were less impacted. In 2021, Barcelona strengthened its position in the sea-sea transhipment market while also welcoming more gateway cargo.

Sustained growth in Zeebrugge and Sines

Zeebrugge and Sines close the top 15 ranking. These ports already posted a strong performance in 2020, and further strengthened their positions in 2021. Zeebrugge’s volume in 2021 was 23.9% higher than its 2019 results, partly as a result of the strong performance of its Cosco Shipping Ports terminal. The Portuguese port of Sines managed to do even slightly better with an impressive 28.2% growth.