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Sea Transport Industry in Hong Kong


  • Endowed with a deep-water, silt-free natural harbour strategically located along a major sea route and with the Chinese mainland providing a huge cargo base, Hong Kong has become a sea transport hub in Asia.
  • Advanced port facilities and efficient port services are complemented by excellent trade, financial and other services which underpin Hong Kong's status as the seventh largest trading entity in the world. In 2016, 16.8% of Hong Kong total exports (by value) were transported by sea. 
  • Hong Kong Port was the world's fifth busiest container port in 2016 with a throughput of 19.8 million TEUs, trailing Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen and Ningbo-Zhoushan.
  • Hong Kong's port is renowned for its efficiency. All container terminals are privately owned and operated. Productivity enhancement through new cargo management techniques has raised their handling efficiency.
  • In April 2016, the Hong Kong Maritime and Port Board was established to set the directions for the long-term development of Hong Kong ports and the respective maritime services. 

Industry Data

Table: Total Port Cargo Throughput (million tonnes)
Table: Total Port Cargo Throughput (million tonnes)
Table: Total Container Traffic (million TEUs)
Table: Total Container Traffic (million TEUs)

Range of Services

The sea transport sector is of vital importance in supporting Hong Kong's status as the world's seventh largest trading entity. In 2016, Hong Kong handled 257 million tonnes of seaborne and river cargo. About 65% of seaborne cargo was transported by ocean-going vessels. Of the seaborne cargo handled in the aforesaid year, 93.4 million tonnes (57%) were transhipment cargo. The Chinese mainland was the biggest source and destination of Hong Kong's transhipment cargo.

Hong Kong handled 19.8 million TEUs of containers in 2016, down 1.3% from 2015. Of the total, 77% were handled by container terminals at Kwai Tsing Terminals, with the rest handled mid-stream by Hong Kong's mooring buoys and by river trade facilities. The moorings also handle most of Hong Kong's break bulk cargo. Bulk shipping takes care of bulky, unpacked goods such as oil, gas, grain, minerals and timber.

Liner shipping

Sea cargo to and from Hong Kong is carried both by liners and bulk vessels. Liner shipping is operated under a scheduled timetable with pre-announced rates and destinations. Many key routes are under liner conferences (agreements by the main shipping lines on tariffs and sailings). Hong Kong is a major hub with about 340 container liner services per week connecting to about 470 destinations worldwide.

The larger container lines have invested in advanced systems to provide cargo tracking information and improve efficiency. They often form alliances or merge with other transport providers to develop door-to-door multi-modal services. Many liners are also forming alliances amongst themselves to increase efficiency and reduce cost in a very competitive environment. Vessel sharing has enabled the liners to offer a more flexible service in terms of global coverage, higher frequency of departures and a greater choice of routes.

Port Facilities

Hong Kong's port facilities are financed, built, owned and operated by private firms.

Container Terminals

Hong Kong has nine existing container terminals with a total of 24 berths at Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi Island, operated by several private consortia. Through various productivity enhancement measures, their combined throughput capacity is some 20 million TEUs per year.

In December 2014, the Hong Kong government released findings of the Study on the Strategic Development Plan for Hong Kong Port 2030 (HKP2030) and the Preliminary Feasibility Study for Container Terminal 10 (CT10) at Southwest Tsing Yi. Although the preliminary PFS findings show that CT10 development is technically feasible, the project is not viable financially or economically due to slow throughput growth. Further, with appropriate measures expected to enhance the handling capacity of existing terminals to cope with future growth, planning for CT10 before 2030 is therefore not recommended.

To meet the development needs of the port and logistics industries, the Hong Kong government has been implementing a number of enhancement measures, including provision of additional terminal yard space and barge berths in phases to increase the handling capacity of the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals and better use of back-up land. In addition, dredging work to deepen the Kwai Tsing Container Basin and its Approach Channel from 15m to 17.5m was completed in 2016 to allow ultra-large container ships to access the container terminals at all tides.

River Trade Terminal

The Pearl River links Hong Kong with many manufacturing centres in Southern China, with the Pearl River Delta (PRD) being the main cargo base for the territory. River trade has grown fast over the past two decades, rising from 9.3 million tonnes in 1990 to 92.6 million tonnes in 2016. To cater for increasing river trade, a dedicated terminal, the River Trade Terminal (RTT), was established in 1996 and became operational in November 1998. RTT is located in the west of Tuen Mun.

Service Providers

Shipowners own ships to obtain an income. In the liner shipping market, ship owners rent ships to a shipping line. In the bulk shipping market, ships are rented on a time or voyage basis to a ship charterer or ship operator.

According to the Hong Kong Shipowners Association (HKSOA), as at December 2016, the total tonnages of ships owned or managed by its members exceed 178 million deadweight tonnes (DWT), or about 9% of the world’s total.

As at May 2017, 2,540 vessels were on the Hong Kong Shipping Register (HKSR), boasting a total of more than 110 million gross registered tonnes, making HKSAR the fourth largest shipping register in the world following Panama, Liberia and Marshall Islands.

Shipping lines tend to own and/or lease a group of ships which they deploy on pre-determined liner routes. Ship operators rent ships from owners and use them to carry bulk cargoes from port to port. The aim of the operators is to reduce the number of wasted voyages and this requires careful selection of the ship, routes and cargo.

Shipping lines use shipping agents to sell their freight space in a particular port. The shipping broker acts to match the supply of bulk vessels from operators/owners with the demand for bulk cargo shipments by the charterers.

Table: Employment & Establishment in 2015
Table: Employment & Establishment in 2015
Table: Business Receipts and Other Incomes of Selected Industry Groups (HK$ billion)
Table: Business Receipts and Other Incomes of Selected Industry Groups (HK$ billion)


According to the latest available statistics, Hong Kong earned HK$115.3 billion from exporting sea transport services in 2015 (accounting for 14.3% of total service exports in 2015), down 12.3% from 2014. Unlike air transport, passenger revenues constituted an insignificant part of the export of sea transport services.

Table: Exports of Sea Transport Services
Table: Exports of Sea Transport Services

More countries are seeking to privatise their port operation and/or develop new ports to be run on a commercial basis. An exportable sea transport service from Hong Kong is thus the development and management of ports on the Chinese mainland and the wider region. Hong Kong port operators are already active in this field. Modern Terminals, a Hong Kong terminal operator, invest and operate several container terminals in Shenzhen, and has expanded its business to the Yangtze River Delta (YRD) since 2004. Hutchison Port Holdings (HPH) Group, another Hong Kong terminal operator, has a network of operations that comprises 48 ports in 25 countries, handling 81.4 million TEUs worldwide in 2016.

Recent Developments and Market Outlook

The Hong Kong Maritime and Port Board (HKMPB) was established in April 2016 as a platform for closer collaboration among the government, the industry and relevant stakeholders. HKMPB is charged with steering the long-term development of Hong Kong ports and respective maritime services. 

Ports on the Chinese mainland have been developing quickly over the past years. Shanghai was the world’s busiest seaport in 2016, handling 37.1 million TEUs, while Shenzhen was the world’s third busiest port with a throughput of 24.0 million TEUs, followed by fourth-ranking   Ningbo-Zhoushan (which has surpassed Hong Kong since 2015) with throughput growing by 4.5% annually to 21.6 million TEUs.

According to the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index (LPI), Hong Kong scored 4.07 to rank ninth in the world and second in Asia. In terms of international shipment performance, Hong Kong ranked second among 160 economies.

To improve air quality in coastal areas, the Hong Kong government and the Guangdong Maritime Safety Administration are collaborating on the implementation of a domestic emission control area (DECA) in the waters of the PRD in January 2019. Vessels plying within the designated DECA are required to run on low-sulphur fuel with sulphur content capped at 0.5%. In late 2016, both sides signed a cooperation agreement and formed a working group to implement the DECA plan.

To strengthen safety within Hong Kong waters, the government gazetted the Pilotage (Amendment) Bill 2013, making pilotage compulsory for all ships visiting Hong Kong with a gross tonnage of 3,000 or more. Apart from this, the bill suggested to allow a pilot to retain the same class of licence until the statutory age limit of 68 rather than 65 in order to make good use of pilots’ experience and expertise in piloting mega-size vessels and in training junior pilots.

The Kai Tak Cruise Terminal entered service in June 2013. With rooftop and tourism-related facilities for visitors and locals, providing embarking and disembarking services for cruise passengers. The terminal’s capacity of customs, immigration and health quarantine operation clearance can serve 3,000 passengers per hour.

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HKZMB), a large-scale cross-border infrastructure linking the three places, is expected to be completed in 2017. Cargo movement between Hong Kong and western PRD will be further enhanced.

The Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA)

CEPA gives Hong Kong services suppliers (HKSS) greater flexibility and in more preferential terms to access the market. In many sectors, HKSS are allowed to form wholly owned units in providing certain types of maritime services, including the following:

  • International ship management services
  • Containers station and depot services
  • Non-vessel operating common carrying services
  • Port cargo loading and unloading services
  • Ship survey services for ships registered in Hong Kong
  • International ocean container leasing, buying and selling as well as trading of container parts
  • Ship maintenance and repair services
  • For tugs that operate between Hong Kong and mainland ports, regular business services such as shipping undertaking, issuance of bills of lading, settlement of freight rates and signing of service contracts

For a Hong Kong company providing maritime transport services, 50% or more of the ships owned by it, calculated in terms of tonnage, should be registered in Hong Kong.[1]

HKSS can set up joint venture enterprises on the mainland to provide third-party international shipping agency services. The shareholding of Hong Kong service suppliers should not exceed 51%. This lowers the barrier of the third-party international shipping agency services for Hong Kong service suppliers, as compared to other foreign joint-ventures outside CEPA. Business scope has been further expanded for HKSS since January 2009, as they are allowed to set up wholly owned enterprises and branches in Guangdong on a pilot basis to provide shipping agency services to vessel operators for routes between Guangdong Province and Hong Kong and Macau.

After ten annual Supplements to keep widening and broadening the liberalisation measures in favour of HKSS, Hong Kong and the mainland entered into a subsidiary agreement under CEPA in 2014 to achieve basic liberalisation of trade in service trade in Guangdong (“Guangdong Agreement”). This was then followed in December 2015 by the Agreement on Trade in Services (“ATIS”) to extend the coverage of the 2014 agreement from Guangdong to the rest of the mainland. Unlike the Supplements which adopted a positive-list approach to introducing liberalisation measures, the two CEPA agreements adopt a hybrid approach to granting preferential access to Hong Kong using both positive and negative lists.

The ATIS, which covers and consolidates commitments relating to liberalisation of trade in services provided in CEPA and its Supplements and also the Guangdong Agreement, was implemented in June 2016. For example, under the ATIS’s negative list, national treatment is given to HKSS in providing maintenance and repair of vessels services, pushing and towing services, rental/leasing services relating to ships, but as a reserved restrictive measure, not in providing rental of vessels with crew engaging in coastal waterway transportation. While national treatment is given to HKSS in providing freight transportation on the mainland, they can only operate in such a sector provided that mainland suppliers could not meet the demand, with their capital contribution in a joint venture limited under 50%. Details of the preferential access concerning the sea transport services sector can be found at this website.

On 28 June 2017, two additional CEPA agreements were signed by the mainland and Hong Kong governments, namely Investment Agreement (IA) and Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (EcoTech). The IA will be implemented from 1 January 2018, with the EcoTech taking effect on the signing date. In particular, the IA provides clarity and stability in relation to the promotion and protection of investment flows between the two places, giving greater certainty to assets procured by Hong Kong companies whether they are in the capacity of HKSS or investors.

[1] The requirement that "50%, or more of the ships owned by it, calculated in terms of tonnage, should be registered in Hong Kong" as set out in Annex 5 of the CEPA legal text (see www.tid.gov.hk for further details), is not applicable to HKSS which provide towing services.

Content provided by Picture: Winnie Tsui
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