Last reviewed 8 November 2019

Sanctions, US-China trade disputes, environmental concerns, fuel economics and tensions involving the Strait of Hormuz — a strategic maritime chokepoint — have all contributed to decelerated growth in merchandise trade.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Review of Maritime Transport 2019, World maritime trade lost momentum in 2018 as heightened uncertainty, escalating tariff tensions between the US and China and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, sent waves through global markets.

Available at, the +120-page report shows that volumes in the sector grew by only 2.7% last year, below the historical averages of 3% and well below the 4.1% recorded in 2017.

Reflecting this slower maritime trade, growth in global port traffic also edged down, with container port traffic increasing by only 4.7% in 2018, from a 6.7% growth rate in the previous year.

Similarly, container trade growth weakened so that, in 2018, volumes only increased by 2.6%, compared with 6% in 2017.

UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said: “The dip in maritime trade growth is a result of several trends including a weakening multilateral trading system and growing protectionism. It is a warning that national policies can have a negative impact on the maritime trade and development aspirations of all.”

However, he still expects international maritime trade to expand at an average annual growth rate of 3.4% over the 2019–24 period, driven in particular by growth in containerised, dry bulk and gas cargoes.

Having said that, UNCTAD warned that risks are particularly high for the most vulnerable economies. Its report highlights a growing connectivity divide — an increasing difference between the most- and least-connected countries.