International law firm Ince & Co has advised port operators to expect a year of transformation in 2018.

Shifting economic trends, trade flows and global demographic patterns, in tandem with changes in port ownership and ongoing investment in modernisation and expansion are all creating the conditions for what could be a defining year for the global ports industry, says Ince & Co.

Ton van den Bosch, head of Ince & Co's global ports & maritime infrastructure practice, said: "Recent years have been marked by changing fortunes across the world's ports. From Africa to Asia, Europe to the Americas, no operator can avoid the changing commercial realities of port operations.

"There is every prospect that 2018 is set to be a transformative year for these terminals and their ongoing development, with real commercial opportunities to be had for those operators who can navigate these waters successfully."

For ports in Asia and Africa, van den Bosch points to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a major driver of this transformation.  "If 2017 was the year when the West woke up to the Belt and Road, 2018 will be the year that its impact will begin to become apparent," said van den Bosch.

Another area that Ince & Co sees as being of particular commercial value to operators planning for 2018 and beyond is a shift towards gateway operations, rather than transhipment. The firm points to changing trade flows in Asia and Africa creating captive markets ready to be tapped.

Van den Bosch said: "When we look at countries like Congo or East Timor, we clearly see operators scrambling to establish gateway terminals to open up these markets to global trade.

"This is a pattern that is repeating all over the world: Belt and Road investment improves local infrastructure and transport links, and operators move in to build. Put bluntly, cargo volumes needing to reach localised geographies in these frontier markets have few other choices. Port operators that can lead this trend and get into these markets early will be able to build themselves as a lasting and indispensable presence to these nations."

Whilst the firm sees these shifting global trends as the most significant opportunity for operators, it also underlined the acute risks facing the port industry in 2018. In emerging markets, financing will remain a challenge as well as ongoing issues in terms of compliance, anti-bribery and corruption.

Ince & Co does not anticipate emerging technologies, such as automation and blockchain, breaking through as a "game-changer" in the next 12 months, but does expect a clearer picture to emerge of the likely commercial applications and benefits of these technologies within port operations.