Port traffic rise signals optimism in industry
Buoyant figures for traffic at Northern Ireland's main port could signal recovery in the ailing manufacturing and consumer sectors, it has been claimed.
New figures from Belfast Harbour show trade through the port, which accounts for 60% of Northern Ireland's seaborne traffic, is up for the first time in three years.
The trading update shows tonnages during 2010 were up 5% to 16.5 million tonnes, compared to a 10% fall since 2007.
Bulk cargoes handled by the port increased by 12% during the year, with particularly strong increases recorded by agri-food related trades.
For the first time ever, grain and animal feed tonnages reached the two million tonne mark.
Belfast Harbour said an almost 50% jump in stone exports reflected strong road repair programmes in Great Britain and the development of new markets in continental Europe.
Severe winter weather meant salt tonnage more than doubled to a record 98,000 tonnes.
The Harbour said that improved freight vehicle traffic, which was up 1.6% and container tonnages, which were up 4.1%, suggested a recovery in confidence in Northern Ireland's manufacturing and consumer sectors.
Chairman of Belfast Harbour, Len O'Hagan, said while there are still worries over the strength of the economic recovery - particularly in the Republic, which accounts for 20% of Belfast Harbour's trade - there was reason to be optimistic.
"With the agri-food and associated sectors continuing to expand, due in part to the recent development of new harbour facilities costing £30m, it also appears that manufacturing activity in Northern Ireland is beginning to show signs of increased activity and tentative recovery," he said.
But commercial director Joe O'Neill added that while 2010's trade figures were generally positive, some sectors - particularly construction - continued to experience difficulties.
This was reflected by a 32% fall in timber products leaving the port, down to 82,000 tonnes, the lowest since 1985. Cement imports fell to 48,000 tonnes, an almost ten-fold fall since their 2001 peak. Passenger numbers remained static at 1.3m while 35 cruise ships called at Belfast carrying 62,000 passengers and crew.