IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2009


Panorama: The Mediterranean Year

Economy and Territory

Culture and Society


The Components of Maritime Transport in the Mediterranean

Christian Reynaud

Nouveaux Espaces de Transport en Europe Applications de Recherche (NESTEAR), Paris

There are several dimensions of maritime traffic in the Mediterranean, which can be considered on three levels:

  • As a ‘maritime route’ that, as such, is one of the world’s major trade routes, through which nearly a third of world trade ‘passes’, from the mouth of the Suez Canal to the Straits of Gibraltar or the Bosporus, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea;
  • As a ‘crossroads’ of continents –European, Asian and African– whose trade is growing with globalisation;
  • As a ‘landlocked sea’ through which coastal countries develop their trade.

On the statistical level, it is difficult to obtain homogenous data in order to evaluate the different types of traffic in tonnage: the European database, COMEXT, providing information on trade by EU countries in tonnage and value, must be consulted in conjunction with the UN’s global database, COMTRADE, which only provides data on the value of products traded.

This is why NESTEAR had to carry out estimation work in view to gaining a set of homogenous data on tonnage based on the value of products per tonne, as well as research on the main routes employed in the Mediterranean for the different types of trade.

The aim of this contribution is to provide a brief report on the research we have carried out over the course of several years in order to compare the different trade levels in the Mediterranean and illustrate the main routes.

CHART 1 Components of Mediterranean Maritime and Terrestrial Traffic

Source: NESTEAR, 2009

The Mediterranean: A World Trade Route  

In this ensemble, there is naturally maritime trade between Mediterranean countries and the rest of the world, but above all trade takes place between the entire EU and countries of Asia and the Middle East via the Mediterranean Sea.

Trade between EU Member States and Asia amounted to approximately 210 million tonnes in 2006 and has been rising strong for the past twenty years or so. It essentially consists of diverse, ‘non-bulk’ merchandise transported in containers. The containerisation rate for non-bulk traffic is often greater than 80 and even 90%. Container traffic represents over 150 million tonnes.

This traffic is highly imbalanced, two thirds of it comprised by European imports. Past trends show that the import growth rate, on the order of 8% per year, is twice as high as the export growth rate, on the order of 4%. This imbalance should increase even more due to the emergence of East Asian countries such as China or South Asian countries such as India.

Trade by South Mediterranean Countries with the rest of the world apart from Europe consists of approximately 280 million tonnes. Yet this traffic is essentially comprised by bulk cargo, amounting to nearly 200 million tonnes, including oil. The transport of ‘non-bulk’ products, which are also most often containerised, only represent some 80 million tonnes, nearly a third of which involves Turkey’s trade with neighbouring countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Middle East, as well as North America.

Trade by South Mediterranean Countries (SMCs) with Asia consisting of non-bulk products remains quite limited to date, on the order of 11.5 million tonnes, nearly 40% of which consists of imports by Turkey and Egypt, which are the most populated SMCs. This traffic of imports from Asia is rising very rapidly, with a past trend of approximately 8% average import rate for all countries, which is due to dynamic export by Tunisia, Israel and Jordan. In general, foreign trade by South Mediterranean Countries is diversifying, in particular with countries of Asia, the Middle East and the CIS.

For the EU, this traffic can be divided between northern and southern European ports, with a much lower rate in northern port traffic, as shown on the map (Map 1) showing European port traffic.

In any case, the Mediterranean has also seen the development of major hub ports that serve as redistribution points for the largest container ports, whose capacity now surpasses 10,000, and in some cases even 12,000 TEU.

This organisation of world maritime transport has led to the creation of an entire network of ‘feeder traffic’ among Mediterranean ports, used for trade among Mediterranean countries themselves. World container traffic has allowed an increase of the number of shipments among Mediterranean countries, with passage via maritime hubs essentially implemented for intercontinental world commerce.

The names of these major hubs are well known and their number is rising: in the eastern Mediterranean near the entrance/exit to the Suez Canal, in the central Mediterranean area with Maltese and southern Italian ports, and in the Straits of Gibraltar area with Algeciras and now Tangiers.

The Mediterranean: A Crossroads of Continents

The vocation of the Mediterranean serving as a crossroads of continents has grown stronger over the past few years in the Mediterranean, in particular in the eastern Mediterranean with the influence exercised by the countries along the Black Sea, those belonging to the CIS, Central Asian countries and Turkey, whose trade with the Mediterranean has grown considerably, and finally by the Persian Gulf States.

The influence exercised by these continents on trade in the Mediterranean, and particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, has already been discussed in the preceding section on the Mediterranean as a world maritime trade route.

Indeed, it is difficult to estimate the maritime routes of globalisation in this trade, for which terrestrial routes can be used. Hence the interest of researching the effects on the terrestrial and maritime networks of the different continents in order to better comprehend the transport needs these in-depth structural changes will entail. In this perspective, the Mediterranean seems an ensemble of maritime routes connected to terrestrial continental routes.

The European vision of the extension of trans-European networks via land corridors extending towards Central Asia through Turkey and priority corridors identified in the South Mediterranean and the Middle East confirms the interest of having a global view of land and sea transport in order to better understand the Mediterranean’s role as a ‘crossroads’ and the role to be played by land routes in relation to maritime routes.

In many cases, there is no single answer and a solution is the result of a combination of maritime and terrestrial routes, with an emphasis on the future of the intermodal solution, whether this be road/rail transport, RO-RO transport, road/sea, or transport of cargo units with standard ISO containers allowing the three modes to be combined, as well as perhaps the maritime mode.

The Mediterranean: A Landlocked Sea

In this area, three types of flows can be identified:

  • Trade between the EU and SMCs;
  • Trade among the SMCs themselves;
  • And finally, trade among EU Member States bordering on the Mediterranean.

With regard to trade involving the EU Member States, moreover, it is important to distinguish between what we will call the southern EU countries, namely, Spain, France, Italy and Greece, and the northern EU countries. In trade between the EU and SMCs, the SMCs display a high degree of dependence, trade with the EU representing 30-70% of their foreign commerce. This dependence is more marked for Maghreb countries than for eastern Mediterranean countries, even if all of these countries have experienced a diversification of foreign trade, as mentioned above, associated with globalisation.

The situation is not reciprocal. Mediterranean countries represent but 5-20% of the EU’s foreign commerce: the highest percentages are attained by the southern EU Member States of Spain, France, Italy and Greece.

In tonnage, this trade represents a considerable volume, standing at 425 million tonnes, a large part of which consists of bulk products and, in particular, petroleum products imported by Europe. In 2006, Europe imported 285 million tonnes of liquid and solid bulk products, as compared to only 33 million tonnes of bulk products exported.

Thus trade in non-bulk products between EU countries and other Mediterranean countries only amounts to 106 million tonnes.

Trade among South Mediterranean Countries (SMC-SMC trade) is highly limited due in particular to the difficulties of crossing borders still extant between neighbouring countries and a certain economic competition among these countries. In a hypothetical liberalisation of trade in the Mediterranean, trade should increase considerably among Maghreb countries, as well as among countries of the Middle East, Egypt and Turkey, whose populations, in particular urban ones, continue to rise rapidly, while this is not the case in Europe. The diversification of production structures associated with economic development should, moreover, limit the restraints associated with situations of competition in trade, multiplying opportunities for trade in different branches of the economy and businesses among neighbouring countries.

At present, SMC-SMC trade represents but 50 million tonnes, of which nearly 40% involve Turkey’s foreign commerce, relatively well distributed among the ensemble of SMCs. In this trade, including bulk products and oil, ‘non-bulk’ products comprise only 13 million tonnes, which is a weak amount and confirmed by the fact that trade among SMCs rarely represents more than 5-10% of foreign trade for these countries. Their growth rates from such a low level should be particularly high in the forthcoming years.

The estimates effected by NESTEAR provide the following volumes of traffic (Table 1) for maritime transport in the Mediterranean for ‘non-bulk’ products.

TABLE 1 Volumes of Traffic for Maritime Transport in the Mediterranean for ‘Non-Bulk’ Products

Extra-MED Traffic (in billions of tonne-km)
EU  400  
South/East MED (Europe excluded)  198 (113: Asia; 85: Atlantic)  
Intra-MED Traffic
Med-EU   165 in MED (65 Atlantic / North Sea)  
South-South  11  
Total774 billion tonne-km  

Thus volumes of maritime traffic of non-bulk products in the Mediterranean amount to a total of 774 billion tonne-kilometres, to which must be added the amounts of intra-European trade in non-bulk products (traffic among EU countries, which is basically bulk traffic) and traffic involving national maritime coastal trade (which remains essentially bulk product traffic, except for supplies to islands). Hence, we have, in total, an important amount in play of approximately 800 billion tonne-km, excluding bulk cargo.

At this stage, a certain number of remarks need to be made concerning trade among Mediterranean countries, including trade with the EU:

  • In intra-EU trade, northern ports handle a larger volume than southern ones: Antwerp is the main port of entry and exit for Mediterranean traffic, excluding oil.
  • For the various merchandise, there are actually two coexisting transport organisation systems:
    • The network of maritime container shipments mentioned above, which creates a sort of ‘sub-system’ for intra-Mediterranean trade;
    • A more direct provision of RO-RO services in the Mediterranean, as is the case in particular for North-South trade, with much less East-West movement.

These two types of service were analysed by NESTEAR to ascertain their respective significance within Mediterranean trade. Feeder and RO-RO services were introduced into a GIS database (Geographic Information System) on the Mediterranean trade network. The distribution (NESTEAR’s ‘NEST-MED’ models) is illustrated by the map (Map 1), which shows international maritime trade flows among countries as well as their continuation into the hinterland.

MAP 1 Intra-Mediterranean Trade in 2006

In general, containerised product shipments entering and exiting ports of northern Europe, as shown on the chart, generally take a longer route but also prove less expensive.

  • There is a limited amount of competition between terrestrial and maritime transport in certain relations in the western and eastern Mediterranean, in particular between Morocco, Spain and the EU on the one hand, and between Turkey and the EU on the other.

It is quite clear that this type of model will be particularly used to ascertain the interest of new transport techniques such as the ‘highways of the sea’ advocated by the EU. This type of technique, one of the best examples of which is the transport between Turkey and Italy established some twenty years ago, could find privileged applications among southern EU countries wherever maritime transport routes prove much shorter than terrestrial ones.

The third type of ‘landlocked sea’ trade is the trade taking place among EU Member States.

Due to European integration and economic development measures undertaken by EU countries, the potential volume of intra-European trade is considerable. For this type of trade, the past trend has been one of growth of road transport along often congested coastal roadways. Non-bulk maritime trade is highly limited except in the Adriatic between Greece and Italy, where there are also nice examples of maritime highways from Igoumenitsa and Patras in Greece, not to mention Piraeus.

Hence, there are many opportunities yet to be developed, in particular among Spain, France and Italy, with much shorter maritime distances as compared to land routes, easily allowing transport agents to avoid crossing the natural barriers of the Alps and the Pyrenees.