Transportation & Logistics Analysis

Italy: a dense and mostly efficient port ecosystem

April 26 2024

SPECIAL FEATURE 3/5. The main Italian ports handled a cumulative traffic of 11.03 million TEUs in 2023. Gateways to and from the country's territory, they also play a role as a hub for southern Europe for some actors.

The Italian port ecosystem is characterised by a dual function. As in all countries, ports first serve as the entry and exit gateways for the country's foreign trade. But more so than in other European countries, Italian ports also play a central role as hubs in the south of the continent.

The dual function of Italian ports

By its geographical position, the Italian peninsula brings Europe closer to the eastern part of the Maghreb. It is also a headland into the heart of the Mediterranean. The main Mediterranean Sea route, between the exit of the Suez Canal and the Strait of Gibraltar, passes a short distance from the Italian coast. Finally, Italian ports have formed privileged links with the landlocked countries of Central Europe, such as Hungary, Austria and Switzerland. Acting in this role Trieste stands out as the preferred gateway to Austria and Hungary. As an example, during the conflict in the Balkans, UN RoRo, a Turkish shipping company, had developed a line for trucks between Turkey and Trieste. The trucks boarded the ships while their drivers took a flight. Taken over by DFDS, the line is still in operation. Some of the tractor-trailers now reach their final destination accompanied by the drivers. The others are loaded onto trains to travel into the heart of Europe.

This role as an entry and exit gateway is also replicated in the west of the country, where Genoa plays a central role for trade with Swiss manufacturers. Swiss shippers have long considered the Italian port as their southern gateway to the international market. In recent years, the major seaport of Marseille-Fos has also been attempting to position itself on this market.

Finally, it's Italy's geographical position that has led port operators to create hubs in the country. This function first developed in the south of the peninsula. There are two ports that stand out: Gioia Tauro and Taranto. The Calabrian port, Gioia Tauro, was born from the desire of a German-Italian handling group, Contship, to create a port hub dedicated to container shipping at the end of the 1990s. From a simple dock used for local traffic, Contship has made this port the largest Mediterranean port hub.

The second southern hub is in Taranto. For decades, it was mainly a coal port receiving the production from the coal mining industry in the centre of the country. When the wave of de-industrialisation hit the south of the peninsula, the port authority of Taranto saw containerised traffic as a potential growth driver. But if Gioia Tauro succeeded in facing the challenge, Taranto experienced more difficulties. Initially, the port entrusted the management of this hub to the Evergreen Group in the early 2000s, as the Taiwanese shipping company was experiencing growth. Despite investments and projects, Evergreen has never succeeded in imposing this Mediterranean hub. The Taiwanese shipping company finally threw in the towel. Since then, the Taranto hub has passed into the hands of the Turkish group Yildirim. With its Maltese terminal, the Turkish group aims to impose itself in the centre of the Mediterranean between Europe and North Africa.

A third project existed in the late 1990s. P&O Ports, a subsidiary of the eponymous ferry group, wished to impose itself in the landscape of Mediterranean hubs by creating a foothold in Cagliari, Sardinia. It was a question of creating on the island a port competing with that of Malta. This risky gamble never met the success hoped for. When DP World took over the activities of P&O Ports in the 2000s to expand internationally, the Cagliari site was quickly abandoned.

Containerised traffic twice that of French ports

Italy has a total of twenty ports distributed along the coasts of the peninsula but also in the two islands of Sardinia and Sicily. The main ports of the territory handled a cumulative traffic of 11.03 million TEUs in 2023, down 6.3% compared to 2022 but nevertheless higher than the results recorded in 2020 and 2021. This fall corresponds to a general trend in Europe, where almost all major container ports experienced a decline in 2023.


* Estimates – Sources: Port Authorities. © Upply/Ports and Corridors.

Italy handles about double the volume of French containerised traffic (about 5 M TEUs in 2023), with almost the same number of ports. Three ports enter the millionaire club: Gioia Tauro, Genoa and La Spezia. The first takes advantage of its status as a hub, whereas Genoa and La Spezia act more as connecting ports to the hinterland.

Gioia Tauro particularly stood out in 2023 with a 5% growth in its traffic. The port authority indicates that this increase is due to the marked presence of MSC in the terminal. Indeed, after being developed by Contship, the Gioia Tauro container terminal partly passed into the hands of Mærsk before joining the MSC group. The Swiss shipping company has made this port its hub in the Mediterranean.

If Trieste fails to reach the milestone of one million containers, it came close to this mark in 2022 with nearly 900,000 TEUs. This port situated in the north-east of the country must nevertheless combine containerised traffic and ro-ro traffic in a sometimes limited space.

Ports with containerised traffic between 100,000 TEUs and 700,000 TEUs play more of a regional connecting role. This is the case in Naples, Venice, Cagliari (for Sardinia), Salerno and Ravenna.

An attractive market for port operators

Italy's geographical position and the possibilities offered by its ports to serve the southern European market have attracted major port handling operators.

Italy has first and foremost become the MSC Group's new "playground". After initially concentrating its activities in Northern Europe, the Italo-Swiss shipping company has been interested in the Italian port system for several years. Through its various subsidiaries, the group manages the Civitavecchia terminal, the Gioia Tauro terminal, the Mediterranean Gateway Container Terminal in Genoa, and the Naples terminal. In addition, it has an 80% share of Trieste Marine Terminal and a 40% share of La Spezia Container Terminal alongside Contship. Finally, the group is a shareholder in the Venice and Ancona terminals. Recently, the MSC Group expressed an interest in the acquisition of the Darsena Toscana Terminal, in the port of Livorno by making an offer to the current concessionaire, GIP (Gruppo Investimente Portuali). Finally, even before the commission in charge of competition in Italy made its decision, MSC's handling subsidiary, Terminal Investment Limited, renounced the takeover of this terminal. Its competitors had alerted to the fact that MSC would then have been in a dominant position in the port of Livorno since it already owns 50% of Lorenzini, the operator of the other container terminal.

At the same time, foreign groups are also taking a close interest in Italian ports. The arrival of the Singaporean group PSA in Genoa, in the SECH terminal and Genova Pra, constituted the group's first incursion into Europe. The Singaporean group also stated an interest in Venice and then in other European countries.

In 2019, the Chinese government also expressed its intention to make the two Italian ports of Genoa and Trieste hubs, this was announced just after Italy had signed an agreement with China to join the New Silk Roads project supported by Beijing. The arrival in power of Giorgia Meloni dealt the final blow to this agreement, from which Italy withdrew in December 2023. The two Italian ports would then not act as China's beachhead in Italy. The case attracted a lot of attention. It is part of an attack by European port operators against the participation of Chinese groups, and in particular Cosco, in the ports of the Old Continent. While Cosco has not taken a position in Genoa and Trieste, the Chinese group does however have a foothold in the Italian port ecosystem. Indeed, in the port of Vado Ligure, in the northwest of the country, the container terminal is managed by APM Terminals and Cosco. The latter holds 20% of the capital of the terminal management company.

In parallel with the arrival of foreign groups on Italian soil, a local company has distinguished itself and established itself in the national port landscape: Contship Italia. Created in 1969, the group is present in Italy in La Spezia, Ravenna, and Salerno . Abroad, Contship has a foothold in Tangier Med. In addition to port terminal activities, Contship Italia develops multimodal rail solutions and logistics platforms.

In addition, the Italian operator Grimaldi is present in the ports of Savona, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Gioia Tauro, Catania, Palermo, and Monfalcone.

The main players in maritime transport

  • MSC, Ignazzio Messina, GNV

While the MSC Group is headquartered in Switzerland, its Italian roots are beyond doubt. Italy can therefore boast privileged links with the world's leading container transport company. But MSC's activities don't stop there. The group has also been active in the ferry business since it took over the operation of Moby Lines. It has even now become the main Italian ferry operator.

The Italian-Swiss shipping company is also a shareholder of the Italian groups Ignazzio Messina and GNV (Grandi Navi Veloci), two shipping companies that operate ro-ro traffic in the Mediterranean and Africa. MSC's presence in Ignazio Messina's shareholding prompted Grimaldi, its main Italian competitor in this sector, to oppose a stake in the San Giorgio terminal in Genoa, and the Antitrust Enforcers also expressed reservations. The decision is expected by the end of the first half of the year.

Founded in 1992, GNV was the first Italian ferry operator to be listed on the stock exchange. The shipping company is positioned on the lines between the Italian peninsula and islands such as Sardinia. In order to catch the wave of the short sea shipping sector in the 2000s, GNV extended its offer to North Africa by opening a line from Genoa to Tunis in 2003. In 2008, it continued its growth by connecting Genoa to Barcelona and Tangier. Then it increased its presence in the Mediterranean with connections between Sète and Tangier and between Italy and Albania.

While it had for a time welcomed the Grimaldi family to its capital, GNV is now part of MSC. In 2011, Marinvest, a subsidiary of MSC, came to the rescue of the company by providing cash but also three ships. In 2013, the level of the MSC subsidiary's shareholding in GNV increased from 50% to 58%.

  • Grimaldi

The Grimaldi Group was founded in Naples by Emmanuele and Gianluca Grimaldi. It has two main activities: shipping and tourism. The structure that manages the shipping lines includes a multitude of companies, each of which has retained its commercial branding. These different companies allow the Grimaldi group to have a wide offer that includes container and ro-ro operations both in the Mediterranean and in Northern Europe sailing to North America, South and West Africa.

  • Grimaldi Euromed deploys regular line services with ro-ro ships in the Mediterranean. It is one of the main shipping companies for short sea shipping, particularly in Spain, Greece, and North Africa. In addition, it provides connections between the Mediterranean and North America for the transport of new cars.
  • Grimaldi Deep Sea operates regular routes with con-ro vessels (containers and ro-ro). It offers services between Northern Europe, West Africa, and South America.
  • ACL is particularly specialised in traffic between Northern Europe, North America and West Africa.
  • Minoan Lines mainly operates ferries between the Greek islands and the peninsula, offering both cargo and passenger capacity.
  • To develop its Motorways of the Sea business in the Mediterranean, Grimaldi took over Malta Motorways of the Sea in 2005, which mainly handles freight between North Africa and southern Europe with ro-ro vessels.
  • Trasmed GLE, a company based in Valencia, specialises in the transport of passengers and freight between the Iberian Peninsula and the Balearic Islands.
  • Finally, Finnlines operates Ro-pax ships that serve Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Spain, among others.

In addition to this regular line activity, Grimaldi is a terminal operator on different continents.

© Photo Credit: Roberto Merlo

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Graduated in law, Herve Deiss joined the transport, logistic and shipping press more than 20 years ago. From over these years, he has developed a specific expertise in all ports systems around the world
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