EU ports still recovering from pandemic disruption

EU ports still recovering from pandemic disruption
Archive image. Credit: Port of Antwerp

Europe’s ports, important both for cargo and the transport of passengers, have been under significant stress in the last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite this, there are still signs of a revival, according to data from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency.

Last year, passenger numbers and cargo increased significantly, but they are still far from pre-pandemic levels.

The health crisis nearly crippled passenger shipping operations. In 2020, there was a 45% fall in the number of passengers embarking and disembarking in EU ports.

The cruise industry was decimated by the pandemic, with the highly contagious virus rapidly spreading through cruise ships at the start of the pandemic. Revenues for the three largest cruise companies dropped by up to 80% in 2019-2020.

According to quarterly reports, cruise giant Carnival Cruises reported a net loss of $4.4 billion and an 85% decline in revenues in 2020 compared to the year before. The company was forced to sell six of its large cruise liners.

Ferry services were also significantly impacted by the virus. Brittany Ferries suffered accumulated losses of €220 million and P&O Ferries lost €128 million between 2019-2021. As a result of these pandemic losses, P&O cut its route connecting the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to the British port of Hull.

There are now initial signs that the industry is starting to recover. Last year, compared to the year before, the number of passengers embarking and disembarking in EU ports increased by 16%, reaching 267.9 million passengers. This is still considerably less than before Covid, when 418 million passengers used EU ports.

The busiest passenger port in the EU last year was Messina, Italy, with 8.3 million passengers. Other busy passenger ports included other Mediterranean locations such as Reggio Di Calabria, Italy (8.1 million), and Piraeus, Greece (6 million).

“In 2021, the top 20 passenger ports accounted for more than 34$ of the total number of passengers embarked and disembarked in the reporting EU Member States,” the statisticians noted. “All ports of the top 20 saw passenger traffic decrease substantially in 2021 compared with 2019, with the exception of… Piombino (+2%) and Isola d’Elba (+3%).”

Belgian ports saw 88,000 passengers embark and disembark last year. Compared to 2019, when 1,092,000 passengers used Belgian ports, this represents a staggering drop of 92%. Before the pandemic, Belgium was the 18th busiest EU passenger port in Europe. Now, it is the 6th quietest, despite Belgium’s coastal access and major ports.

Belgium remains a cargo powerhouse

While Belgian ports have all but disappeared from the map for passenger departures and arrivals, the port of Antwerp remains the second largest freight port within the EU. In 2021, the port of Antwerp handled 216 million tonnes of goods.

While the pandemic shut down businesses and reduced some cargo transport, the uptake in e-commerce, paired with staffing issues, pushed some ports to breaking point. Despite a difficult 2020, freight shipments through European ports rebounded last year, increasing by 4% to 3.5 billion tonnes.

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Jacques Vandermeiren, CEO of the Port of Antwerp noted that Flemish port authorities had succeeded in mitigating much of the damage caused by Brexit last year, increasing the level of cargo by nearly 5%. The largest increase in cargo was recorded in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, which processed 27% more tonnage than in 2020. Despite this, the Dutch remain the biggest players on the North Sea.

“The Netherlands remained the largest maritime freight transport Member State in 2021. Dutch ports handled 590 million tonnes of goods, 17% of the total volume of seaborne goods handled last year in the EU. The Netherlands was followed by Italy and Spain, each with a share of 14%,” Eurostat noted.

Unfortunately, increased activity at European ports is largely negative for the environment. The port of Antwerp was ranked as the second most polluting in Europe, after Rotterdam, for impact on the environment. In total, Antwerp emits 7.4 million tonnes of CO2 each year. As they enter and leave ports, large cargo and passenger ships spew out harmful gases such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur dioxide.


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