The world shipping fleet provides not only transport connectivity to global trade but also livelihoods to the people working in maritime businesses in developed and developing countries. At the beginning of 2017, the world fleet’s commercial value amounted to $829 billion, with different countries benefiting from the building, owning, flagging, operation and scrapping of ships. The report reveals that:

  • Only one country from Latin America – Brazil – is among the top 35 shipowning countries; none are from Africa.
  • The five largest flag registries are Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, Hong Kong (China) and Singapore; together they have a market share of 57.8%.
  • Three countries – the Republic of Korea, China and Japan – constructed 91.8% of world gross tonnage in 2016; among these, the Republic of Korea had the largest share, with 38.1%.
  • Four countries – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China – together accounted for 94.9% of ship scrapping in 2016.

The share of shipowning by the traditional maritime nations in Europe and North America has continued to decrease, while that of middle-income developing countries, especially from Asia, has increased.

"Shipowning is not a high-technology industry that would require the latest, most sophisticated technologies and thus provides opportunities for emerging economies. At the same time, shipowning is not a labour-intensive business, where low-wage countries could benefit from any cost advantage – as is the case for ship scrapping. It is for this reason that middle-income countries in particular have increased their market share over the last decades, while the least developed countries are not among the world’s major shipowners," UNCTAD explained.

A somewhat different picture emerges if the estimated commercial value of the fleet is considered. Here, the United States fleet leads with $96  billion, followed by Japan, Greece, China and Norway. The average value per ship of owners from Qatar is $75  million, reflecting its fleet of expensive liquefied natural gas tankers and other specialized tankers. In comparison, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam own fleets with low unit values. Indonesian-owned fleets have an average commercial value of $3.6 million per vessel, reflecting the large number of smaller and older general cargo ships and ferries that are employed in interisland transport.

The above figure depicts the composition of the fleets of the top 10 shipowning countries (dwt). Greece has the largest share of oil tankers, while China has the largest share of general cargo ships, and Germany, container vessels. The United States and Norway have relatively large shares in offshore tonnage, which tends to be of high commercial value. This also explains the high unit values of ships owned by these two countries.