Over the past few months we have had several incidents where the word “cabotage” led to confusion and misunderstandings. There seem to be different ways in which the term is used.

The classic meaning of cabotage

Finding its origin in the French expression “caboter” which means to travel by coast, the term has since stood for the right of domestic coastal trade. Precisely cabotage defines the domestic transport of goods or people done by a foreign company. First regulations were developed in the 18th century to prevent foreign ships were threatening the local shipping industry. Today Cabotage laws exist globally not only to protect the domestic industries, but also to protect shipping infrastructure, keep the territorial seaways clear as well as for reasons of national security.

Not interested in the history of cabotage? Jump to to modern cabotage now.

Although cabotage laws are present in most countries, the extent as to which they are enforced varies from country to country. The most well-known regulations are the “Jones Act”(1920) present in the USA, imposing an absolute ban on cabotage. This means all domestic transport along the US coastlines has to be carried out by US vessels with a US crew. Although currently at least 75% of the crew has to be made up of US seafarers, there is a strong push to increase this even further. Another prominent example of outright cabotage restrictions are in China, however even there the regulations have started to relax in recent years.

There are various reasons why cabotage restrictions are employed and to which extent it is done. Yet the most important reason is pricing. In most cases vessels coming from abroad offer lower prices for transport which the domestic market is unable to compete with. This can be due to lower labour costs, borrowing costs / interest rates, lower fuel prices or even due to the material and repair costs that they have abroad.

However, recently there has been debates in certain countries about the level of cabotage present and whether it is actually protecting or rather hurting the domestic industry. In countries like India where the number of domestic vessels is unable to cope with domestic transport demands, cabotage restrictions are slowing down the economy. It is a sensitive topic which poses the struggle of how to relax regulation without losing control / simultaneously strengthening the domestic shipping market while not slowing down growth.

The biggest exception is the case of the European Union. Due to trade regulations, coastal trade is admitted between all member states to support free trade. Although it can be argued that there are at times both winners and losers of the system, the goal is to increase the overall economic benefit by increasing trade and economic activity between all members.

Finally, cabotage restrictions have also been applied to other transport modes, namely the domestic transport of passengers and goods by road, rail or air. Again, there is a few notable exceptions to encourage overall economic benefit, but for the sake of analysing the term of cabotage in the shipping industry we will not get deeper into this.

A modern take on cabotage

More recently another use of the word “cabotage” has become used in the container industry, which could be explained as “one-way cabotage”.

In container logistics, an all-too-common problem is having the right containers at the right location at the right time—something that very often involves moving empty containers from surplus to deficit locations. All container market participants (be it container liners, leasing companies or traders) face this issue and it is estimated that about every third container is being moved empty. Cabotage (or one-way cabotage) is an alternative to moving the boxes empty by providing the assets temporarily to a different company which use these for their own freight. The idea is, that the boxes will then be returned in a location where the container owner needs them again.

This cabotage of containers offers mutual benefits for both parties

The user usually gets granted a certain free period to use the container and can thus keep the costs for their move at a minimum or optimally even eradicate them completely. The supplier on the other hand saves on the cost of repositioning plus improves his CO2 footprint.

Another common use case for cabotage is container traders or leasing companies providing their new or second-hand containers to liners or NVOs in order to move them to their ultimate customers in the most cost-efficient way possible. Oftentimes in such cases, the target destinations are highly specific with only limited inbound and outbound cargo, hence making it very attractive for the user to use such 3rd party equipment.

Why isn’t cabotage more frequently used?

You don’t have to call several partners anymore to organize a one-way container move/ SOC! Gain instant transparency and take the best offer available from more than 200 partners – within seconds!

Unfortunately for potential cabotage users and suppliers, the market is not very transparent and inefficient: Finding partners, negotiating and administering contracts, tracking your containers, billing and invoicing… all of that is cumbersome and time consuming. That’s why we at Container xChange aim to make this market more accessible and efficient—by providing a neutral online platform where container users and suppliers can find, negotiate and execute one-way transactions. There is still a long road to travel—and too many containers are still moved empty—but we believe platforms such as xChange can support the transition to a more efficient cabotage market.