You can be forgiven if you have a clouded understanding of what an economic zone is. Countries develop different types of free economic zones (FEZs) as a tool to generate employment opportunities, promote and diversify exports, increase technology transfer and attract investment flows. Developing and emerging economies use FEZs as “economic laboratories”, “incubators” or showcases of a generally strong enabling environment and a competitive market for investment. In order to achieve the intended objectives of zones, governments offer a range of incentives from fiscal to regulatory such as export duty exemptions, streamlined customs and administrative controls and procedures, liberal foreign exchange policies and income tax incentives. Governments have been experimenting with the use of policy tools in ensuring the effectiveness of their zones; however they have not always been successful. Nowadays, governments are trying to move away from the traditional zones with the traditional set of objectives and policy tools to either more comprehensive or sector specific zones. In addition, they are trying to incorporate other development policy instruments to their policy packages to tackle other issues such as skills development, rural development and green growth while achieving the traditional objectives.
The first type of FEZs mostly took the form of free ports – customs free areas within seaports offering little more than warehousing and trade facilities. Over time, some free ports developed into customs-free zones in which light manufacturing and other processing took place. The next step was the development of export processing zones, which encourage more complicated manufacturing operations with the purpose of exporting. Later, special economic zones (SEZs) and specialized zones (SZs) evolved. SEZs offer a wider array of sectors including manufacturing and services that target both foreign and domestic markets. In addition, they permit on-site residence and provide all facilities to employees and hence could be viewed as standalone cities. On the other hand, specialized zones (SZs) focus on specific industries by providing the appropriate infrastructure and building on the concepts of clusters.
The terminology applied to free economic zones, in literature and common usage, is highly confusing. Words like “free zones”, “free trade zones”, “customs-free zones”, “special economic zones”, “export processing zones”, etc. are in practice used almost interchangeably. This reflects the implementing authorities’ linguistic preferences as much as functional differences between different kinds of zones.
Common to most FEZs is the fact that they are ring-fenced enclaves (with the exception of Single Factory/Private EPZs) that enjoy special regulatory, incentive and institutional frameworks that are different from the rest of the economy. The different classifications of FEZs are as follows:
- Free trade zones (FTZs; also known as commercial free zones): are fenced-in, duty-free areas, offering warehousing, storage, and distribution facilities for trade, trans-shipment, and re-export operations.
- Export processing zones (EPZs): are industrial estates aimed primarily at attracting export-oriented investments. They cover usually a wide array of manufacturing industries.
- Private zones/Single factory processing zones: provide incentives to individual enterprises regardless of location.
- Special economic zones (SEZs): are larger estates and could be considered cities on their own. They usually cover all industrial and service sectors and target both foreign and domestic markets. They provide an array of incentives ranging from tax incentives to regulatory incentives. In addition, they permit on-site residence.
- Specialized zones (SZs): targeted at specific sectors or economic activities. Examples of SZs include science/technology parks, petrochemical zones, logistics parks, airport-based zones, and so on. They may restrict the access of companies in non-priority sectors, and their infrastructure is mostly tailored according to their sectoral targets.
The distinction between the different kinds of zones must involve an element of judgment and sometimes zones fall in between categories. South Africa’s Industrial Development Zones (IDZs) combine elements of both 1 and 2 above. Most free zones restrict the access of certain categories of investors, without necessarily being classified as specialized zones. Also, it is not very clear how “special” a free zone’s regulatory environment must be before it can be classified as a SEZ. FEZs in their general definition can include a combination of characteristics from all the previously identified FEZs. I guess that while you still dont have a clear understanding of what an economic zone is, I hope the above has shed a little more light on the subject?