Belfast Harbour has seen an upturn in trade in the first quarter of 2010, something it believes could be an early indication that the Northern Ireland economy is through the worst of the recession.
The port saw a 7.2% increase in tonnage in the first quarter compared with the same three months of last year, with both imports and exports showing a rise.
The Harbour Authority made the upbeat assessment as it published its annual report for 2009, which showed that turnover rose by £0.4m to £33.1m and operating profits edged up £0.3m to £15.1m.
Pre-tax profits stood at £19m before a £13.9m contribution to the new Titanic Signature Building in Titanic Quarter were included. Overall trade through the port slipped by 4% to 15.7 million tonnes, reflecting the continuing impact of the difficult trading environment in the economy.
But the port company was keen to point out that Belfast had outperformed other Irish ports such as Dublin and Cork, and increased its market share of the Irish Sea container sector to 20%.
Trades associated with the agri-food sector had also recorded double digit growth and passenger numbers rose strongly by 3% to 1.33m in the year, with figures for 2010 suggesting an upturn in business activity.
Len O'Hagan, Belfast Harbour's chairman, said: "2009 was a difficult year for the economy, but initial figures from quarter one of this year suggest, however, that economic activity is on the up with both imports and exports through the port increasing.
"While economic uncertainty has slowed down the pace of investment by Belfast Harbour, a number of major projects have been initiated or completed, not least the Titanic Signature Building, which is also supported by the Northern Ireland Executive, Belfast City Council, and Titanic Quarter Ltd.
"The project is the single most important regeneration project underway in Belfast Harbour Estate and will help drive significant tourism and investment interest in Northern Ireland generally.
"Maritime related projects included a major upgrade of the Harbour's road access at Dargan to Northern Ireland's motorway network; an extension of our deep-water facilities which were used by 35 cruise ships; a 70% increase in handling capacity for paper imports and a new £6m storage facility for the agri-food sector.
"Over the past few years Belfast Harbour has invested heavily in new infrastructure and we will continue to upgrade and develop new facilities to meet the long-term demands of the economy."
Belfast Harbour handles 60% of Northern Ireland's sea borne trade and last year accommodated 125,000 containers, 307,000 freight vehicles and almost 6 million tonnes of bulk cargo.