Record year for Belfast Harbour as freight increase sees 24.6m tonnes of cargo go through port
The volume of cargo passing through Belfast Harbour has surpassed 24 million tonnes for the first time since records began.
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Trade increased by over 900,000 tonnes (3.8%) to reach 24.6 million tonnes during 2018.
Growth was led by a strong increase in freight vehicles being carried on Stena Line's services to Great Britain, which rose by 3% to a record 532,000 freight vehicles.
Co Tyrone fuel company LCC also increased its imports and exports of industrial coal by 37% over the year, passing the one million tonne mark.
The company ramped up production at its coal processing plant, where it imports and processes coal, which it then exports around the world to locations including Australia, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
The animal grains and feeds sector also posted a record year on the back of 2018's cold spring and dry summer period, registering 2.35 million tonnes, a 7.5% annual increase on 2017.
For the second consecutive year, more than 1.5 million passengers passed through the Belfast port.
Stena Line's trading performance in 2018 was boosted by the introduction of a third larger vessel on the Belfast to Liverpool route. It also recorded market share gains on the Belfast to Cairnryan route.
Meanwhile lolo (lift on/light off) container traffic at Belfast Harbour increased by 1.5% to almost 128,000 containers last year, the highest volume since 2011.
Describing 2018 as a strong year of growth, chief executive Joe O'Neill said many trade sectors had reached record levels in traffic over the 12 months.
"Growth has been supported by Belfast Harbour's long-term investment programme to improve its competitiveness and efficiency," he said.
"During 2018, for instance, we invested in the purchase of the largest hydraulic crane in any UK or Irish port, and took significant investment decisions to improve and increase ferry and container handling capacity."
But the completion of a series of large sea windfarm projects could see traffic plateauing or even dropping off this year. Harland and Wolff had been contracted by Danish firm Orstead for the work.
Belfast Harbour's commercial director Michael Robinson said the windfarms had been a source of significant tonnage and revenue for the port, but admitted a number of challenges lie ahead.
"We were pleased to note the Crown Estate announcement in late 2018 of a new round of seabed leasing which could see the return of this trade in the early 2020s," he said.
"We also recognise the long term expected declines ahead in some of our more traditional trade sectors.
"These include the importation of fossil fuels as the economy transitions to renewable energy sources and the general consumer trend away from consumption in favour of experience purchases."
He added: "Accordingly we are making investments in facilities for our longer term sustainable trade sectors and repositioning our business to avail of the opportunities in the changing economy."
Mr Robinson also said that 2018 marked the start of a £40m project to upgrades the harbour's container terminal, increasing its handling capacity.
He also reflected on the rising number of cruise tourists arriving in Belfast. Last year saw 185,000 visitors arrive on 115 cruise liners.
That's expected to increase to 285,000 tourists in 2019, with 151 ships scheduled to dock here.