Business

Belfast Harbour takes hit from cruise collapse but pledges to continue major investment projects

Disney Magic, one of 115 cruise ships to dock in Belfast last year. The industry has all but collapsed and is unlikely to recover until 2023. Picture by Justin Kernoghan
Ryan McAleer

BELFAST Harbour is anticipating that Covid-19 could hit revenues by as much as 20 per cent this year, largely due to the collapse of its cruise, tourist and leisure business.

Port bosses said they do not expect any of the scheduled cruises to arrive in Belfast this year, with plans for a new cruise terminal now on hold.

Just one ship docked in the city in 2020 prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 130 were originally booked, expected to bring around 230,000 tourists to Belfast.

Chief executive Joe O’Neill said it could be 2022-23 before the cruise business recovers.

Belfast Harbour confirmed that its revenues and profits were already down in 2019, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Turnover dropped four per cent to £65.9m, with operating profits falling to £30.6m, down 15 per cent.

Harbour bosses said the fall was in line with expectations, largely due to the loss of the lucrative Orsted offshore wind contract.

It’s believed the deal had been worth around £6m a year to the port.

Coal volumes were also down, due to its diminishing use by the energy industry.

 Belfast Harbour.

Harbour chair David Dobbin said while the coal business will not recover, the commissioners expect a number of fresh offshore contracts to be issues in the next year, with Belfast will positioned to win the new business.

Despite revenues expected to be down between 10-20 per cent this year, Belfast Harbour also said the hit from Covid-19 had not been as bad as first anticipated.

Harbour bosses initially thought its business could be down by one-third after a 20-25 per cent slump in trade volumes between March and May.

But trade levels have improved and were only down by 9-10 per cent in recent weeks.

“It is much lower than we expected,” said Mr Dobbin. “That it is not to say that there are some companies who are not severely affected.

“We’re more than happy that we can weather the storm. We’re going to be down in profit and cash flow this year. But we’ve got more than enough cash to cover the investments we’re making.”

He said the harbour will continue with major capital investments including City Quays 3, Belfast’s biggest ever office project. Farrans is currently on site, although the completion date has been pushed back to early 2022.

Belfast Harbour has already started work on the £50m City Quays 3 building

Mr Dobbin said other projects could be moved around in response to the changing economic reality.

“We’re going to stay in the black and we’re going to continue with our investment.

“We’re still largely sticking to the investment plan. This year alone there will be nearly 4,000 construction jobs coming from those investments.”

A £45m expansion of the harbour’s film studios will also go ahead, if demand continues at present levels. Planning permission is expected to be secured for the massive project over the summer.

Mr Dobbin said production had resumed on ‘The Northman’, starring Nicole Kidman, with filming set to commence within weeks.

Chief executive Joe O’Neill said around £50m is bring invested this year in projects.

“While the pandemic may influence some of our short and medium-term priorities we believe that the long-term goals of our strategy largely remain valid.”

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