Greece is a maritime nation by tradition, as shipping is arguably the oldest form of occupation of the Greeks and has been a key element of Greek economic activity since Ancient Greece. Today, shipping is the country's most important industry worth $9 billion in 2015, 4% of the country's GDP. If related businesses are added, the figure jumps to $17 billion or 7.5% of GDP, employs about 192,000 people (4% of the workforce), and shipping receipts are about 1/3 of the nation's trade deficit. In 2015, the Greek Merchant Navy controlled the world's largest merchant fleet, in terms of tonnage, with a total DWT of 334,649,089 tons and a fleet of 5,226 Greek-owned vessels, according to Lloyd's List. Greece is also ranked in the top for all kinds of ships, including first for tankers and .
Many Greek shipping companies have their headquarters located either in Athens or London and New York City, and are run by Greek traditional shipping families which are notable for their great wealth and influence in the international maritime industry, such as the Vardinoyannis, Latsis, Livanos, Angelicoussis, Niarchos, Angelopoulos and Goulandris. The 7th Secretary General (2003-2011) of the International Maritime Organization was Efthymios Mitropoulos.
In the times of the Ottoman Empire, the involvement of the Greeks in international maritime commerce was also prominent and Greek ships could be found especially in the ports of the eastern Mediterranean. They expanded their shipping activities and trade towards western Europe in the 16th century, taking advantage from the rapidly increasing need for grain. The restrictions imposed by the Ottomans to regulate the grain trade did not prevent the Greeks from carrying out illicit trade which brought considerable fortunes to them. Later, the Greek maritime merchants increased their influence, as they supplied the Balkans with raw materials, handled goods on behalf of foreigners, distributed the goods to the final markets and controlled the sea trade in the region, assuming the role of shipping agents. During the 18th century, the consolidation of political and economic power at the hands of the Phanariotes in Constantinople helped further expansion of the Greek maritime activity into the rest of Europe. The Greek merchant marine was also able to displace the western maritime powers due to the Anglo-French wars, which led their commerce to decline, and the navigation of the Greek vessels under the protection of the Russian Empire in many occasions.
The most prominent of the Greek cities that emerged as maritime powers were those from western Greece, primarily Galaxidi and Missolonghi, but also Arta, Preveza and Corfu, due to their early commercial ties with the Italian cities. In addition, the Aegean Islands were heavily active in shipping, where traditionally the inhabitants occupied with maritime commerce, especially Hydra, Spetses, Andros, Syros, Chios, Kasos, Psara and Mykonos. Although they did not have their own national flag, they flew the flags of the Russian and the British Empire for international routes. In 1792, the first Greek insurance company was founded in Trieste and those of Odessa followed in 1808 and 1814. Gradually, Greek seafarers made a lot of money and gained further knowledge and experience as they had to refine their ships and themselves in warfare against pirates. The growth of the Greek merchant fleet gave confidence and success to them, while their contact with the western peoples awakened their national consciousness and made them feel free. The existence of a reservoir of trained sailors was to be proven an inestimable advantage once the Greek War of Independence had broken out, when the Greek merchant fleet converted to a formidable martial weapon against the cumbersome ships of the Ottoman fleet.
In the wake of the nineteenth century Greek Diaspora the Chiot families were well positioned to take advantage of the commercial opportunities across Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. Families such as the Ralli Brothers were already established in Marseille and London. They established a network of shipping specialists across all of the major ports in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Gaining a seat on the Baltic Exchange, Ralli brothers were able to introduce shippers and agents to reliable sources of funding and through Lloyd's of London, to reliable insurance. Uniquely, this enabled them finance their fleets with the ships acting as security, a practice that was illegal in Greece. In some parts of the world these fleets were Greek-owned, but in Britain they were almost exclusively chartered by London Greeks flying under the British Flag. The major shipping companies were then owned by Papayanni, Spartali and Schilizzi, while the Rodocanachi family became pre-eminent traders in their cargoes.
Accompanying these Greek-run fleets were local expatriate communities of workmen and agent-translators who managed the unfamiliar customs and bureaucracy in foreign ports. In these times before the telegraph, this network gave the Greek shippers advance warning of events and allowed them to control news and prices in advance of their competitors. A history of Greek-owned shipping, by Gelina Harlaftis
The financial crisis of the 1860s saw some of these businesses collapse Depredations: Overend, Gurney & Co and the Greek and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, by 'Stefanos Xenos' (1869) Nonetheless, the tradition of endowment continued, and it was shipping that funded institutions such as the National Library of Greece.
These changes heralded a move by some of the Chios families out of shipping and into financing or broking, allowing Ionian-descended families to establish their own networks and shipping dynasties, most notably the Vaglianos, Ziffa and Sechiari, with funding routed from the London financial markets.
Many changes and upheavals affected their markets: the Russian Revolution, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and restrictions in Egypt that closed their markets to foreigners. The Greek grain merchants in London and Odessa lost access to their traditional grain suppliers and markets and, rather than close, they seized the chance to invest in merchant fleets of steamships, and specialized in Tramp steamer shipping.
The Second World War saw those Greek shipping companies operating in the Allied areas place their fleets under control of the British Merchant Marine, and suffer the same depredations and difficulties.
During 2010-2011, in terms of ship categories, Greek companies had 32.5% of the world's tankers and 23.8% of the world's bulk carriers (in dwt). An additional equivalent of 20.05% of the world's tanker dwt was on order, with another 14.1% of bulk carriers also on order. Shipping is one of the country's most important industries. In 2010-2011, it accounted for 8% of GDP, employed about 290,000 people (8% of the workforce), and represented 1/3 of the country's trade deficit. Earnings from shipping amounted to €35.4 billion in 2014, while between 2000 and 2010 Greek shipping contributed a total of €280 billion (almost the country's public debt in 2014 and 4.5 times the receipts from the European Union in the period 2000-2013). A European Community Shipowners' Association report for 2013–2014 reveals that the Greek flag is the first-most-used internationally for shipping, while it ranks first in the European Union; the same ECSA report showed that there are approximately 950 Greek shipping companies in operation.
Counting shipping as quasi-exports and in terms of monetary value, Greece has ranked 4th globally in 2011 having "exported" shipping services worth $37,704,132; only Denmark, Germany and South Korea have ranked higher during that year.
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