To understand just how connected our world has become, you don’t need to do much than to head down to a store. Whether it’s a clothing shop, the local grocer, or a hardware store, you’re bound to find goods from all over the world, all available to you whenever you need or want them.
This is now so common that many of us have come to take this for granted. We see something is “Made in China” and don’t think much of it. Parking politics for just a moment, this fact shows us just how dependent we have become on global trade. It also speaks to the size and efficiency of the shipping industry.
Behind that product is a long story, one that likely took place in many different cities worldwide, all part of its journey from where it was made to where it is sold.
While each item may be different, there’s a decent chance that it took a similar route to get from its origin point to its final destination. Modern shipping companies still rely on many of the same routes used for centuries or more, creating significant traffic at certain chokepoints worldwide.
Here’s everything you need to know about the world’s busiest shipping routes:
Understanding global shipping
To understand why specific shipping routes get more crowded than others and what that means for their economy, safety, and security, it’s essential to understand a little bit more about the world of shipping and trade.
Humans have been exchanging goods with one another pretty much since the beginning of time. It didn’t take long for people to figure out that if they had something good and their neighbors also had something good, they could swap and both benefit.
However, for the vast majority of human history, most trade took place over land. The Silk Road, which connected Europe and Asia, was (and still is) one of the most heavily trafficked trade routes in the entire world, sending goods such as horses, textiles, and silk from the East and grain, iron, and gold from West to East.
Starting in the 15th century, European civilizations (initially Spain and Portugal but later all the Western European nations) began exploring the rest of the world, establishing colonies as they went. Once they did this, many adopted a policy known as mercantilism. The policy was designed to enrich the home country by making use of its foreign colonies.
In other words, it established trade routes between Europe and remote territories, all with the idea of moving goods and making Europe richer.
Establishing shipping routes on the sea
Shipping routes helped transition trade from being primarily an overland venture to one that harnessed the sea. The only way to connect these distant lands was by harnessing the power of the wind and sailing across oceans.
It also laid the groundwork for today’s shipping lanes. By moving goods through the sea, ports became connected, and sailors learned how to circumnavigate the globe as quickly as possible.
During this time, the world became much smaller, a process known as globalization, and since then, it has only continued to shrink. As colonial structures broke and economies opened, trade increased. As the human population continues to grow and demand more and more things, the need to move goods from one part of the globe to the other is as big as it has ever been.
Stats about global shipping
To give you an idea as to just how important trade has become to our modern world, here are some statistics:
As you will see when we discuss the routes that see the most traffic, these lanes get pretty clogged. So, it’s worth wondering, why even use these routes in the first place? After all, modern ships don’t use sails any longer, so they should have more freedom to move around as they please, right?
Well, in theory, yes, but today’s trading ships still rely on predetermined shipping lanes for a variety of reasons, such as:
Winds and currents – While today’s ships rely less on weather to move through the seas than they did when sailing was the only option, the ocean still has a lot of say in when a ship arrives in port. Prevailing winds and currents make it so that it’s simply easier to travel along specific paths. There’s less risk of encountering a large storm, and it’s also better for traveling more quickly. Since these ocean characteristics remain relatively constant, all the world’s shipping vessels seem to congregate in just a handful of places.
Depth – Another issue to consider is how deep the water is. Most shipping vessels require a considerable amount of water to run safely, especially when they are fully loaded with cargo. In some parts of the world, there are only a few places where ships can get the water they need, and so most of the world’s shipping traffic seems to funnel into a few specific locations around the globe.
Major seaports – The world’s busiest trading routes are often determined by the ports they connect. Bigger ports, those more connected with the land routes in a country, will attract more traffic. If there are only one or two ways to get to that port, then the route connecting it to the rest of the trade network is bound to see lots of traffic. Ultimately, this is driven by supply and demand. Wherever there is demand for goods, there will be a route leading to it from someone who can meet that demand.
Safety and security – Believe it or not, shipping valuable goods around the world on the largely unguarded open ocean comes with some risks. In addition to the challenges that can come from a major storm or other weather event, shipping companies also have to deal with piracy. By sticking to major shipping lanes, vessels can take better advantage of what protection there is. For example, the US Navy often patrols near major shipping lanes, but if you are traveling on your own path and need help, you may struggle to get it, which can be costly or perhaps even deadly.
The politics of global shipping
International trade is big business, and because it makes so much money, it also attracts those in power.
Throughout time, being able to control trade routes has been a significant source of political power. The weather and the shape of the Earth push ships into specific locations, and those who happen to control that territory can reap the benefits.
However, because there is so much at stake, wars have been fought to control shipping routes, and tensions are always high. Even today, in a world that lives more peacefully than ever before, constant conflicts surround who controls trade routes. When watchdogs point to the places in the world most ripe for conflict, they almost always focus on areas essential to trade.
The world’s busiest shipping routes
Now that you understand a bit more about global shipping, let’s look at the world’s busiest shipping routes and some of the stories that have helped them achieve such fame.
Measuring the busiest shipping route in the world can be done in one of two ways: measuring the number of ships or the amount of cargo that passes through it on a given day. When talking about busier ports, it’s best to stick with the number of ships, which causes the traffic and can create problems.
However, no matter which measure you use, the world’s busiest shipping rote is The Dover Strait, the narrowest stretch of the English Channel, the body of water that separates England from France. Some 500 ships pass through this body of water each day, which far surpasses any other route in the world.
The main reason why The Dover Strait is so popular is that it provides access to nearly all of Europe, at least the northern part. It allows ships into London and other English ports, which have long been busy thanks to England’s long tradition of colonization and international trade. It is also the gateway to Amsterdam (Netherlands), Rotterdam (the Netherlands), Hamburg, as well as Europe’s busiest port – Antwerp (Belgium.) This means the vast majority of goods that flow in and out of Europe must travel through the Dover Strait. Over time, this has helped France and Britain grow rich and powerful; controlling this massive trade route has some benefits, it turns out.
While not technically as busy as the Dover Strait, the Malacca Strait, which separates the Malay Peninsula from the Indonesian island Sumatra, is arguably the most important shipping route globally. This is because it quite literally connects the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, thereby facilitating much of the trade between East Asia (China, Japan, S. Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.) with the rest of Asia and Europe.
It forms part of what is known as the “Maritime Silk Road.” Together with the Suez Canal, it helps bring Europe and Asia together, much like its overland counterpart has done since ancient times.
The Malacca Strait is important and busy simply because of where it is. Still, its significance also comes from two very specific things: the importance of China and Middle Eastern oil.
In case you didn’t notice, China makes most of the world’s “stuff.” The way it gets to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East is through the Malacca Strait. The Middle East countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, etc. have lots of oil. There’s great demand for this natural resource in Asia, but it must pass through the Malacca Strait to get there.
It gets its name from the Malay Sultanate that controlled it in the 14th century before the European countries arrived. When they did, both the English and the Dutch claimed the narrow body of water. They drew an imaginary line down the middle of it and agreed to take care of pirates on their side, and the boundary went on to form the border between modern Malaysia and Indonesia.
Today, the Malacca Strait remains a hotly contested area. In its efforts to take control of global shipping lanes, China is pushing for (meaning offering to fund) a Thai project that would cut a canal through Thailand, thus eliminating the need to pass through Malacca.
Not only would this make the route shorter, but it would also make most of the shipping traffic heading to and from South Asia pass through the South China Sea, which the Chinese government is actively looking to control more tightly.
Once again, popular trading routes are the source of political and sometimes military conflict.
The other major chokepoint on the “Maritime Silk Road” is the Suez Canal, far and away one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Cut through the Isthmus of Suez in Northern Egypt; the canal connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, which provides a direct maritime trade route between Europe and Asia.
Without the Suez Canal, ships would have to travel around Africa, which would take twenty or more days. With the canal, they can make the same trip in about sixteen hours. Talk about a shortcut!
This connection point has been critical to global trade since ancient times. The ancient Egyptians (who lived starting from c. 2500 BC) made several attempts to connect the Nile River to the Red Sea to facilitate trade between the two regions.
When the canal was built in the late 20th century, it technically belonged to Egypt, though the company that operated it was owned mainly by the British and French. This changed in 1959 during the Suez Crisis, in which the Egyptian government took control of the canal. Its strategic location made it a critical target during World War I and World War II. It continues to be a security concern for the Egyptian government and the world of commerce.
In 2021, the Suez Canal found its way into the news when a grounded ship blocked traffic and caused weeks of delays, showing how important this route is and just how complex and interconnected global shipping systems are.
Another one of the world’s busiest shipping routes also happens to be one of the most controversial, primarily because of how it was built. Carved through the country of Panama, this lane connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, eliminating the need for ships to make the perilous journey around the tip of South America, where strong currents and winds make for dangerous conditions.
The other option is to navigate through the Arctic Ocean, which is even more difficult than heading south.
Because of the lack of alternatives, the Panama Canal sees most of the traffic heading between the two oceans. However, many ships going from Europe to Asia and vice versa will pass through the Suez Canal, and the Malacca Strait since that route is much shorter.
Still, the Panama Canal sees around a million ships per year, making it less busy than some of the other routers on this list, but still significant.
Due to its strategic location, people have wanted to build a canal across Panama since the 15th century. Yet, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that this dream became a reality. Thought the circumstances under which it emerged are a bit dubious.
In short, the United States, driven to connect the two oceans after discovering gold in California, supported an independence movement in Panama that saw the country break free from Colombia. The US was able to invest heavily and take ownership over the Panama Canal, a prime example of American imperialism. The canal’s construction was also a rather costly and deadly affair, turning the project into a bit of a stain on American history.
Today, Panama owns the canal, and it remains one of the busiest routes in the world. To keep it relevant, significant changes have been made to allow the wider, deeper ships of today to pass through with the same ease as always. Many have questioned how much longer the canal will remain relevant.
However, it will continue to exist as an essential route in international trade for the foreseeable future.
The Strait of Hormuz is located in the Persian Gulf, between Iran and Oman. Although not as busy in terms of the number of ships that pass through, it is significant because of what passes through it: oil.
It provides the only access to the Arabian Ocean (and the rest of the world’s sea routes) from the Persian Gulf; about one-third of the world’s oil supply passes through this strait.
Because of this, the Strait of Hormuz is a highly strategic shipping lane. Disruptions here could cause oil shortages around the world, which can have far-reaching impacts.
Currently, Iran exerts the most influence over the Strait, though it is an area that is of particular interest to many powerful nations around the globe.
Not only does the Bosporus Strait, which cuts through Istanbul in Turkey, provide the actual boundary between Europe and Asia, but it is also one of the world’s most significant trading lanes.
Since it is the only way for the various Black Sea states (Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and, by extension) Russia, to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea and the different routes that connect it to the rest of the world, it’s grown to become one of the busiest ports in the world.
Throughout history, these waters have been sough-after. Firstly by the Persians and later the Romans, to help control trade between Europe and Asia. Today, it still serves this purpose, but along the way, it’s helped make Istanbul one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential cities.
Once again, our need to move oil from one part of the world to another has helped create one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. However, this time, we’re heading north to The Danish Straits, which connect the North Sea to the Baltic Sea.
This is a significant trade route for Russia, which must send its ships here if it wants them to reach the open oceans, allowing it to trade by sea with Asia and the Americas. Since oil is one of Russia’s primary exports, this route always seems to stay busy.
Not all of the world’s busiest shipping lanes are in the ocean. One of the most heavily trafficked is the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which runs along the US-Canada border. It connects Lake Erie to Montreal, Canada, which effectively brings ocean access to the Great Lakes.
Since these bodies of water are the main drivers of trade in the American northwest, it should come as no surprise that the nearly 2,300 miles of canal making up the St. Lawrence Seaway make for some of the busiest waters in the world.
The world’s busiest shipping ports
The world’s busiest shipping routes are spread out all over the world. They become busy because they are either choke points, meaning their spots ships must go to, causing a traffic jam, or because they provide access to a big country or important resource.
However, when we look at the world’s busiest ports, we see a different story. Here’s a list of the world’s busiest shipping ports as measured in TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units, i.e., the number of containers):
As you can see, Chinese ports pretty much rule the day. However, all of these ports rest on one of the major shipping routes discussed here, with the majority of them relying on the Malacca Strait. Because of the importance of these cities, we can expect these trade routes to remain busy for many years to come. Because the trade routes remain busy, these cities will also remain significant players in the global economy well into the future.
Our interconnected world
Trade has brought us together. The ability to move things around the world has brought cultures closer together and ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity. However, as with anything, there are winners and losers, and one loser is the environment. It turns out moving goods around the world uses lots of fuel.
Therefore, while these trade routes are likely to remain as busy as ever for the foreseeable future, if they hope to stay that way in the long-term, we will have to find a way to innovate and make better use of our resources.
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