World Economy

Singapore ranked world's top maritime capital, but another city is quickly on the ascent

Aarthi Swaminathan and Blanche Lim
The outlook for shipping in Singapore
The outlook for shipping in Singapore

Singapore has emerged as the world's top maritime capital in a report launched Wednesday, by Norwegian consulting firm Menon Economics.

The annually report, "Leading Maritime Capitals of the World," described the Southeast Asian city state as a resilient hub, home to the fourth largest fleet in the world (when compared to other cities).

The ranking comes as no surprise to Esben Poulsson, president of the Singapore Shipping Association. Speaking with CNBC Wednesday at the Sea Asia conference, he remarked that "Whenever you're number one, there's only one place to go, and that's not where you want to go."

Poulsson said he feels that Singapore's continued dominance is due in part to its continued innovation and its strong maritime services environment, which includes legal insurance and shipbroking.

The second and third places went to Hamburg and Oslo, while Shanghai came in fourth.

The Menon Economics report cited expert consensus that Singapore would remain the "most important city" come 2022, but it noted that Shanghai would become the second most important maritime hub.

"The fact that Singapore and Shanghai are expected to become the most important centers for the industry tells something about the changing center of gravity in both the world economy and the maritime industry," the report said.

A container vessel docks at the Tanjong Pagar Terminal in Singapore.
Suhaimi Abdullah | Getty Images

Rankings were compared in five slices: the city's strengths as a shipping center, offerings for maritime finance and law, maritime technology, ports and logistics, and its overall attractiveness and competitiveness.

Shanghai moved up the ranks in tandem with China's continued development. Despite GDP growth and Chinese oil demand cooling, the port is still abuzz with activity. In fact, it is largely paralyzed by traffic, due to overcapacity and weather conditions.

Shanghai has been the world's busiest port by container volumes since 2010 and that momentum is expected to continue. Seven of the world's 10 largest ports are in China, and they're all experiencing an unprecedented boom in the movement of goods.

Hong Kong, however, may be on the losing end of the Chinese boom. Fifth on the list, the hub is severely challenged by strong growth of other port cities like Shanghai, despite having a strategic location.

Tim Huxley, the director of Mandarin Shipping, told CNBC that opportunities are still emerging and Hong Kong remains an ideal place for both well-established or new shipping companies.

"The range of maritime services in terms of ship management, financial services, legal services, as well as access to new equity remains as strong as ever. The city remains one of the best places in the world in which to set up and run a shipping business."

HK gov could do more in shipping: CEO
HK gov could do more in shipping: CEO

Hong Kong is also a major center for ultra large container vessels which is an important landmark in cementing the country's position as a global port.

Willy Lin, chairman of the Hong Kong Shipper's Council told CNBC's "Squawk Box" that his city will remain an important maritime hub in part because of a relatively recent move to make the port deeper for larger ships.

Increasing regulations and a high cost of doing business in Hong Kong continue to be outweighed by its advantages, industry experts said, although those factors remain important challenges.

"The cost of doing business in both Hong Kong and Singapore: We are seeing both cities regularly being up there as the most expensive cities in the world to operate. And as a services industry, we've got to work out where we can do this efficiently and effectively," Simon Doughty, CEO of Wallem Group, told CNBC's "Capital Connection" on Wednesday, adding that services could be moved to places like the Philippines or even Cyprus.

An insufficient pool of talent is also a challenge for Hong Kong's shipping industry.

"The situation of inadequate manpower resources is particularly serious in Hong Kong, probably because there are many career choices for our young people," said Sabrina Chao, chairman of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association and chairman of Wah Kwong Maritime Transport Holdings, who called on the city's government to raise industry awareness and provide more quality training programs.