Belfast Harbour tonnages stay strong - but fears for the future

Belfast Harbour tonnages stay strong - but fears for the future
Gary McDonald Business Editor

FUTURE trading arrangements after the UK's withdrawal from the EU are likely to shine a fresh spotlight on Belfast Harbour, bosses at the regional port believe.

There are major concerns that consumers in the north may face reduced choice and higher prices when the EU withdrawal deal is implemented, with some goods entering the region from Britain likely to face new checks and controls.

But it remained business as usual in 2019 as the tonnages handled at the harbour eclipsed 24 million tonnes for the second year running.

Positive growth was recorded in several sectors including roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) freight vehicles and exports of aggregates, while last year's more favourable weather conditions led to lower imports of grain, animal feeds and fuels.

Ro-ro units rose by 4 per cent to a record 542,000, reflecting the continued popularity of Stena Line's freight traffic routes to Scotland and England.

Exports of stone by Co Down-based Conexpo for GB and European infrastructure projects exceeded a million tonnes for the first time, while tonnages in the wider aggregates sector grew by 4 per cent.

The north's tourism sector also benefitted from record numbers of cruise and ferry passenger numbers, up by 6 per cent to 1.6 million, the highest in 16 years, while the number of tourist coaches carried also increased by 10 per cent to a record 10,000.

Belfast Harbour chief executive Joe O'Neill said: “Although there has been prolonged uncertainty about Brexit's implications for Northern Ireland, port-related trading activity within the local economy has been steady with tonnage levels staying above 24 million tonnes, which reflects the highly diversified and resilient business model which enables us to operate across every major cargo sector.

“The harbour's long-term strategy is to be the world's best regional port. That will require significant ongoing investment in infrastructure to deliver projects in partnership with key customers such as Stena Line and also attract new trades to Belfast.

“To that end, we are currently investing £55 million to upgrade the Belfast–Liverpool ferry terminal to facilitate two new leading-edge vessels which Stena is introducing and are purchasing ten new cranes at the port's container terminal to improve the efficiency of container handling.”

The 2019 figures also revealed that container traffic increased by 2 per cent, surpassing the 130,000 units handled threshold for the first time since 2008.

Port director Michael Robinson added: “Over the longer-term, the mix of trades handled by the port will continue to evolve as consumer spending habits change and the drive to decarbonise the economy accelerates.

“While this will lead to a decline in fossil fuel imports which have been a staple of the port industry for the last century, it also presents opportunities to further develop trades related to the green economy and sectors such as offshore wind where Belfast Harbour has a proven track record

“By investing in facilities that cater for the next-generation of larger and more efficient vessels we can provide economies of scale for existing importers and exporters and attract new business to Belfast.”

Belfast Port, which handles around 70 per cent of the north's seaborne imports and exports, is home to a mix of 760 businesses working across multiple sectors, to include marine logistics and heavy engineering, commercial and residential real estate, retail, financial and IT services, tourism and leisure, media and creative industries.

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