Greek Shipping is not just a remarkable economic activity, making Greece nowadays the world’s largest shipowing nation, but it is rather an integral part of the country’s cultural heritage. The geographical position of the country -located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa- counting thousands of islands and islets as well as thousands of miles of coastline, made Greeks a maritime nation throughout history.

The reconstructed ancient Athenian trireme Olympias. Flisvos Marina, Paleo Faliro, Attica, Greece. Wikimedia Commons George E. Koronaios / CC BY-SA

It is no coincidence that Greek mythology is tightly linked with the Sea. The Argonauts, Theseus, the columns of Hercules, the adventures of Ulysses, are some of the legendary stories that has sealed the Greek maritime heritage since ancient times showcasing the presence of Greek seamen from the western Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Greek’s maritime unparalleled skills were really outstanding, whether it had to do with sailing to the open seas seeking opportunities for trade or with naval battles like the famous Battle of Salamis against the Persians in 480 BC, whose 2500th anniversary is celebrated this year.

The leading role of the Greek maritime power was preserved through the centuries. From the 16th century the Greek sea trade was spreading transporting to Europe mainly cereals and grains, while the most recognized Greek shipping areas were Hydra, Syros, Andros, Chios, Kasos, Psara and Spetses in the Aegean Sea, as well as Galaxidi, Arta, Preveza and Corfu in the Ionian Sea due to trade with Italy. The contribution of the Greek fleet to the War of Independence against the Ottoman Occupation in the 19th century is of utmost importance as well [Gelina Harlaftis Trade and Shipping in the 19th century – The business network of the Greeks of the Diaspora – The “Chiotic” Phase (1830-1860) in Greek]

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The island of Hydra / Wikimedia Commons / Herbert Ortner / CC BY

After the successful transition of their merchant fleet from sail to steam in the late 19th century, Greek shipowners managed to maintain their dominant position in the global shipping industry that culminated in the 20th century. Greek shipping industry became one of the largest merchant fleets in the world, competing with economic giants of the time such as Japan, USA, Britain and Norway.

The successful performance of the Greek shipping cannot be solely attributed to the “maritime nature” of the Greeks, but it is also the result of strategic choices made by the Greek shipowners such as the creation of a global network of offices and agencies, the staffing of their companies based on kinship and common place of origin, the use of Greek crews on their ships, the access to international shipping and financial centers, the specialization in the transport of bulk cargo, the use of various flags, the direct access to charterers, the use of the traditional business model of buying and operating used vessels etc.

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A Liberty ship commissioned into the US Navy, seen here in San Francisco Bay in 1945 © Wikimedia Commons

Special emphasis should be put on the post-World War II period, when the US decided to sell vessels to European countries in 1946, in order to facilitate the reconstruction of their maritime industry. 98 out of 682 Liberty ships were sold to Greek interests along with those sold to Italians, French, Norwegians, Dutch, Russians etc to be used for commercial trade. At the same time, a significant number of the ships acquired by foreign interests were placed under flags of convenience which had begun to make a strong presence in the international maritime arena, while many of these ships were controlled by Greek owners.

During the ’50s and ‘60s Greek shipping started to flourish gradually becoming an important global actor. Powerful shipowners emerged such as Aristotelis Onassis, Stavros Niarchos, George Eugenides, the Chandris brothers or the sons of Petros Goulandris leaving their mark on the Greek shipping sector. At that time the port of Piraeus strengthened its position as a maritime centre by the establishment of various shipping enterprises headed by these dynamic entrepreneurs whether they were originating from seafaring families or not. The presence of these offices gave additional momentum to the growth of Greece’s largest port as it led to the set-up of various businesses that supported directly or indirectly the operation of the shipping industry. The 1960’s are characterized as the “golden decade” of the Greek Shipping as the Greek-owned fleet ranked second in global scale behind only the UK-owned merchant fleet.

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General cargo ship built at Hamburg-Finkenwerder, as RAVENSBERG in 1955 later names: 1965 NAHSHON, 1969 EVANGELOS VENTOURIS, 1973 ERGINA B.,1975 DOLPHIN, laid up Piraeus 11-05-1977 / Wikimedia Commons / Skyfotos / Sjöhistoriska museet / Public domain

During the 1970’s and despite the uncertainty to world seaborne trade due to the severe oil crisis and developments in the Middle East, Greek shipowners continued to invest both in the construction of ships as wells as in second-hand acquisitions. In the next decades Greek shipping remained one of the cornerstones of the global economy and a major facilitator of global trade.

According to official data, [“The Union of Greek Shipowners’ report on the Greek Shipping and Economy 2020”], Greek shipowners own 20.67% of global tonnage and 54.28% of the European Union -controlled tonnage ranking first in a list of five countries that includes Japan, China, Singapore and Hong Kong and accounts for more than 50% of the world’s tonnage. Greek ship owners rank first in this top shipping nation list owning 4,536 vessels (the number concerns vessels of over 1,000GT ranked by dead-weight tonnage). According to data the Greek-flagged merchant fleet counts 706 vessels and ranks 8th in size on a global level and 2nd in the EU level (in terms of dwt).

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Greek shipping comprises mostly small and medium-sized family businesses carrying staples that are essential for the EU and global economies, including agricultural and forest products, oil and oil products, gas, chemical products, iron and other ores, coal and fertilizers. It is quite astonishing that Greece, though accounting for only 0.16% of the world’s population, remains the world’s largest shipowning nation.

Greek shipping is an important sector of the Greek economy and according to studies it is a major contributor in terms of direct, indirect and multiplied benefits as well as for being a leading job creator and employer. The sector’s direct contribution (commercial freight services) in 2019 is estimated at 7.3 billion euros while indirect and induced contribution (port services, ship repairs, insurance, consumer spending etc.) is estimated at 5.6 billion euros contributing thus a total of 12.9 billion euros to the Greek GDP sustaining directly or indirectly, more than 160k jobs [Deloitte study “Impact Analysis of the Greek Shipping Industry”].

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What is more, the Greek-owned fleet is one of the safest, most energy efficient and environmentally-friendly fleets, while Greece has been elected member of the Council of the International Maritime Organization -the UN’s specialized agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships- for the years 2020-2021, showcasing the dynamic presence of Greece in the international maritime community. 

Read more on GNA
Greek Shipping Miracle: An Online Maritime Museum
Bookshelf: A history of the postwar Greek shipping industry 
Getting ready for the biggest celebration of the Greek Shipping Sector