Belfast Harbour today reported an increase in turnover and operating profits for 2008 but an overall drop in trade as the recession began to hit.
Turnover was up 5% to £32.7million while operating profits rose 10% to £14.8m.
However pre-tax profit at just over £20 million was down 10% on 2007 - the harbour said that reflected a decline in land related transactions of £3.5m as the local property market continued to tighten.
Overall trade levels fell by 5% during 2008 in line with falls in consumer demand and manufacturing output which hit both imports and exports through the harbour.
And with the business downturn gathering pace in the first six months of this year, the harbour froze increases in port charges for 2009.
It reported its tax bill also shot up from £1.9m in 2007 to £5.8m in 2008.
Provisional figures for the first half of this year showed the ongoing recession, particularly the decline in local manufacturing activity, continued to reduce trade passing through the harbour - down 9% on the same time the year before, thus the freeze in port charges.
Amid the economic downturn the harbour was able to report an increase in passenger numbers to 1,289,000 - up 1.2% and visits by a record 39 cruise ships carrying 65,000 passengers and crew.
The annual report also noted that the harbour had completed or commenced capital projects totalling £60 million during the year.
Among investments undertaken was the £10 million upgrade of Stormont Wharf to create the island's longest deep water berth and significant enhancement of cruise ship facilities.
In 2008 the harbour handled;
- 1,289,000 passengers.
- 153,000 containers.
- 316,000 freight vehicles.
- 6,554,000 tonnes of bulk cargo - petroleum products, grain, animal feed, steel etc.
- Arrivals by 5,853 vessels.
- 60% of Northern Ireland's sea-borne trade.
Belfast Harbour chairman Len O'Hagan said in 2008 the UK economy had moved into recession for the first time in almost two decades, reducing trade through the harbour.
"It's a difficult trading environment which requires tight management controls coupled with flexibility, hence the decision to help port users by capping port charges at 2008 levels," he said.
"Despite the economic downturn there have still been some very positive developments including an increase in passenger numbers to their highest level in four years.
"Plus, the diversified nature of the harbour's business has meant that even though trade levels have fallen - albeit less than the average decline in the Irish port sector - there has been an improvement in operating profits, the best indicator of underlying business performance," added Mr O'Hagan.
He predicted: "Although the recession will continue to dampen traffic levels during 2009, we expect the economy to grow in the long-term and increase demand for the port's capacity.
"Ongoing profitability will, therefore, continue to fund a significant programme of new maritime facilities and infrastructure."
Away from the core shipping related business, Mr O'Hagan said the ongoing regeneration of the Harbour Estate continued to be an important part of the business model.
Developments at Titanic Quarter, which Belfast Harbour is co-promoting with Titanic Quarter Ltd, were providing a significant boost to the local construction industry, he said.
Work included the £97 million Titanic Signature Project to which the harbour was contributing over £20 million and major new facilities for the Public Records Office and Belfast Metropolitan College.
"Belfast Harbour is also in the early stages of progressing a complementary 20-acre mixed use scheme centred round Clarendon Dock known as City Quays," said Mr O'Hagan.