Belgian ports were still enjoying favourable headwinds in 2019, before COVID-19 storm hit

The economic importance of the Belgian ports – Flash estimate 2019

Brussels 8 October 2020 – An early estimate reveals that value added generated in the Belgian ports rose by 4.3 % in 2019, which was reflected in an increase in employment (+1.4 %). This growth was evident in both the maritime and non-maritime clusters.

The exponential spread of COVID-19 in 2020 has brought major economic disruption and has also hit maritime goods transport. Goods transshipment in the Flemish seaports and the inland port of Brussels was down by more than 4% in the first eight months of 2020.

In order to meet demand for a rapid release of indicators pointing up trends in value added and employment in the Belgian ports, the National Bank has published a flash estimate annually since 2006.

The figures for the year 2019 are estimates obtained with the help of statistics, pending the final figures that will be published next spring in the 2021 annual report on the economic importance of the Belgian ports. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have been given an extra ten weeks in which to hold their annual general meetings and, therefore, to publish their annual accounts. So, it is possible that the margin of error in the estimates is slightly higher.

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[1]  Two clusters are considered: the maritime cluster and the non-maritime cluster. The maritime cluster, which includes branches of the ports themselves, and whose existence is essential to them (management and maintenance, shipping, transhipment, affreightment, storage, dredging, fishing, maritime services, etc.). The segments that do not have an immediate economic link with port activity which exhibit a close interdependence with it are known as "non-maritime" and include the segments of industry, wholesale trade, transport and logistic services.

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Explanatory note

Value added up by 4.3% in 2019

Value added across all the Belgian ports was up by 4.3 % in 2019. This recovery was evident in the maritime as well as non-maritime clusters. All the Belgian ports have generated more value added. The increase in the maritime cluster was mainly observed among shipbuilders operating in the port of Antwerp, thanks to the rise in forward charter rates, and in the cargo handling sector in the ports of Antwerp, Ghent and Zeebrugge. The non-maritime cluster was favourably influenced by the generation of stronger value added in the energy sector in the ports of Antwerp and Liège owing to wider capacity in the nuclear power plants. In Zeebrugge, the upturn in the energy sector was attributable to an increase in the net allowance for expansion investment in liquefied natural gas plants. In the port of Ostend, the pick-up was above all evident in the metal-working industry and construction, while in the port of Ghent, growth was concentrated more in the motor vehicle sector, where the rollout of a new hybrid vehicle model to be exported via Ghent, played a role. Lastly, other logistic services bounced back in the inland port of Brussels.

Rising employment

During the course of 2019, employment in the Belgian ports grew by 1.4 %, an increase principally due to new jobs created in the maritime as well as non-maritime clusters. All the Flemish maritime ports created extra jobs. The stronger employment in the maritime cluster was mainly seen in the cargo handling sector. In the ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge, the number of jobs grew not only in cargo handling, but also in other logistic services. In the port of Ghent, employment also expanded in the automotive sector. Lastly, the recovery in the port of Ostend was mainly evident in the metal-working industry.

On the other hand, the inland ports of Brussels and Liège did not follow this positive trend. They both faced a decline in the number of jobs in trade and the metal-working industry, respectively.

Goods traffic grew by 2.6%

Goods traffic rose in all the Belgian ports in 2019, with an average growth rate of +2.6 %. The port of Antwerp registered a record volume of goods transshipped, for the seventh consecutive year, on the back of container transshipment and dry bulk. Maritime cargo traffic in the port of Zeebrugge proved to be robust as a result of the significant expansion of the volume of liquefied natural gas transshipped, while the number of containers and RoRo traffic continued to grow in this coastal port. In the port of Ostend, dry bulk – the main type of cargo – posted the best result for the last six years. The growth of transshipment in the ports of Ghent and Liège was slightly negative, while it remained stable in Brussels.

The sharp contraction registered in 2019 in transshipment of sundry conventional cargo can be largely explained by lower steel transit traffic. The import levies imposed by the United States in 2018 led to a reduction in steel landings from 2019 on, while the quotas on European steel imports – imposed in response to the US import levies – pushed down steel landings from mid‑2019. Alongside these trade tensions, European motor vehicle production fell back in 2019, which in turn contributed to a drop in steel imports.

2020: Impact of COVID-19 on maritime transshipment

The spread of the COVID‑19 virus from early 2020 brought huge economic disruption, and maritime goods transport was no exception. Over the first eight months of 2020, total goods transshipment in the Flemish maritime ports and the inland port of Brussels together fell by 4.3 % from the same period of 2019.

The major factors explaining this drop were:

  • the drop in roll-on roll-off traffic in the port of Zeebrugge with a return to more normal levels after the exceptionally high stock purchases recorded in 2019 owing to the United Kingdom’s imminent departure from the European Union;
  • the contraction in dry bulk transshipment in Antwerp as well as Ghent and Ostend – probably because of weaker economic activity, and thus slacker demand for coal and building materials; and,
  • the decline in flows of conventional cargo, principally steel, especially in the port of Antwerp. The reduction in steel transshipments is partly a consequence of the global trade problems that had been observed since 2019 and partly the forced lockdown of certain industries on account of the coronavirus crisis. The port of Ostend displays a different trend: there, transshipments of sundry conventional cargo were up in view of the fact that a huge number of individual cargo units transit through Ostend for the construction of the Seamade wind farm.

Transport of liquid bulk (crude oil, petroleum products and chemical products) also fell in the five ports as a whole. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, this decline was largely due to falling demand for kerosene and motor fuel, on the one hand, and, for chemical products, on the other. The port of Zeebrugge is an exception here, thanks to a sharp growth in transshipment of LNG[1]. Container traffic in the Brussels and Flemish ports contracted marginally, principally in the port of Antwerp. The number of blank sailings, which reached a peak in May and June, has been falling since August. Moreover, fewer port calls by container ships were partly offset by an increase in the average volume per ship and by additional calls into port on top of normal sailing times. Once again, Zeebrugge was the exception, as container traffic has expanded thanks to new scheduled routes over the first eight months of this year.


[1] Liquified Natural Gas.

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