COVID-19 storm cuts Belgian ports’ turnover by 10.5% in 2020

Brussels/Antwerp/Ghent/Ostend/Zeebrugge/Liège, 6 May 2021 — According to a new economic impact study from the National Bank of Belgium, the spread of COVID-19 and the stringent containment measures imposed by governments hit Belgian international maritime trade volumes. Export and import flows through maritime transport with non-EU countries declined respectively by 5% and 4% in 2020, while the aggregate turnover of Belgian ports dropped by 10.5%. This was quite a limited impact in view of the scale of the crisis. Before the pandemic outbreak, direct employment at Belgian ports was still growing – and for the fourth year in a row in 2019. Employment numbers rose by 2% to 254 009 direct and indirect full-time equivalent jobs. Direct value added rose by 1.4% in 2019, while indirect effects fell slightly (-0.3%), totalling €32.2 billion in current prices in 2019.

Belgium’s international trade volumes by sea declined in 2020

Even though only a limited share of exporters and importers in Belgium use trade by sea, this mode of transport is by far the most important in terms of volumes. As expected, trade volumes through maritime transport declined significantly in 2020, by respectively 5% for exports and 4% for imports. The drop in exports was particularly marked during the first lockdown, while the fall in imports was also observed during the second lockdown. When we investigate the impact of the pandemic, captured by the death rate due to COVID-19 in the population of trading partner countries, we show that bilateral trade flows with the hardest-hit countries were the most affected.

Ports see drop in turnover in 2020

Belgian ports were hit by the impact of COVID-19 as well. The strict lockdown imposed by the Belgian authorities in mid-March 2020 with a gradual easing from May and June led to a sharp drop in aggregate turnover figures in April and May 2020 with a year-on-year change of respectively -19% and -28% for the port sample considered. The second lockdown imposed in late October 2020 resulted in a new drop in aggregate revenue in November 2020, although the decline was smaller, with a recovery in December as companies adapted more easily to re-imposed restrictions thanks to experience from the first lockdown. The size of the shock to a median[1] port firms’ turnover in April 2020 (-14% on a year-to-year basis) was much smaller than the fall (-32%) visible in the revenue of a median non-financial Belgian corporation. The impact of COVID-19 was not evenly distributed across sectors. Estimated turnover of a median car manufacturing company fell the most (-86%) in April 2020 compared to April 2019. In the same month, the revenue of a median fuel- producing company dropped sharply (-46%) as well. In the shipbuilding and repair segment and among trading firms, the extent of the shock in 2020 was more heterogenous. The magnitude of the shock to turnover was smallest in the food industry.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Belgian ports boosted employment and value added in 2019 …

Based on the full set of all available annual accounts for the accounting year 2019, the National Bank of Belgium’s annual study on Belgian ports has been updated. Direct and indirect employment grew by 2% in 2019 to 254 009 full-time equivalents, accounting for 5.9% of Belgian domestic employment. All Belgian ports except for Brussels generated additional jobs. The increase in direct employment was mainly due to extra jobs in cargo handling. Other branches created news jobs too. At the port of Antwerp, employment also grew in the chemicals industry and in other logistic services. At North Sea Port Flanders, employment expanded in car manufacturing, while in Ostend and Liège, this was the case in the metalworking industry and other logistic services. Extra jobs were created in the other logistic services, trade and shipping agents and forwarders at the port of Zeebrugge.

In 2019, direct value added at Belgian ports rose by 1.4%, while indirect effects fell slightly (-0.3%), leading to a total value added figure (including direct and indirect effects) of € 32.2 billion in 2019, representing 6.8% of Belgian GDP. Direct value added was up in all Belgian ports. The increase was relatively more evident in the ports of Antwerp and Liège owing to a wider capacity at nuclear power plants. At the port of Antwerp, shipping companies also generated higher value added due to the rise in forward charter rates, while the chemicals industry suffered a sharp decline coming from a huge drop in the operating profit of the biggest chemicals company. At the inland port of Brussels, growth in value added was driven by other logistic services and trade. Zeebrugge experienced a rise in its value added as well, mainly thanks to the energy sector and cargo handling. The energy sector benefited from a higher net allowance for expansion investment in liquefied natural gas plants. The expansion in value added at the port of Ostend was fully driven by the metalworking industry, construction and other logistic services, while the growth at North Sea Port Flanders was the result of more value added in trade and car manufacturing.

… while the pattern of investment was linked to projects and therefore highly volatile

After a high investment volume in 2018 influenced by a merger in shipping companies, direct investment by all Belgian ports taken together bounced back by 22.9% to € 4.8 billion in 2019, a level quite similar to that seen two years earlier. If that merger investment figure is deducted from total investment by Belgian ports in 2018, the adjusted change still shows a decline in 2019 compared to 2018, albeit less drastic (-3.6% instead of -22.9%), due to lower investment in the chemicals industry, energy, cargo handling, other logistic services and fuel production.


[1] Considering the sample of port firms for which monthly figures on turnover are filed at VAT registration, for each month, a median value for the year-on-year growth rates in turnover for port firms is calculated. These medians make up a fictitious median port company. The same exercise is done for different activity branches available in the sample of port firms.