Belgian ports face logjam over rising car imports

Western European ports, particularly Zeebrugge and Antwerp, face unprecedented challenges as they morph into vast car storage facilities. The influx of vehicles, especially from Asia and America, has outpaced the outflow, leading to significant congestion. The bottleneck has several automakers scouting for inland parking lots to keep up with the pace of factory output.

The large car terminal operators ICO and Wallenius Wilhelmsen cope with increased strain on their facilities in Zeebrugge and Antwerp’s Kallo. Last year, the combined import and export volume reached 2.5 million vehicles, with over a million entering Europe. The core activities of these firms are the offloading and boarding of so-called RoRo ships for overseas car transport, but global economic evolutions are turning them into car park companies.

The problem is twofold: increased imported vehicles and prolonged port storage times. The import surge is mainly attributed to Chinese car exports, which spiked by 64 per cent last year. These cars aren’t exclusively produced by Chinese manufacturers but also originate from European brands (and Tesla) manufacturing in the People’s Republic.

Twice as long

The resultant backlog at the terminals stems from a mix of factors, including transport constraints due to a lack of trucks and drivers (the Ukrainian war causes a shortage), insufficient short sea shipping capacity (to process overflow to other European harbours), and a downturn in car demand influenced by inflation and customer hesitance. As a result, vehicles are now parked twice as long as in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, exacerbating the storage dilemma.

Another important contributing factor is the direct-to-consumer business model adopted by electric vehicle brands from Asia and Tesla. These bypass traditional dealership networks and instead use port storage to stall vehicles awaiting buyers. Reportedly, some of these models remain on site for one year and a half.

Asking for guarantees

Chinese automakers are renowned for aggressively stock-pushing their vehicles, shipping them already to Europe prior to customer orders, so they end up stuffed at the terminal operators. These charge additional fees for extended storage, but with a grunge for this business model, they sometimes ask for customer guarantees to secure themselves enough rotational speed and free up terminal space.

And it doesn’t end there. The logistics crisis is further complicated by geopolitical tensions, such as the threat from Houthi rebels, prompting car shipments to reroute via South Africa, leading to the use of larger ships (up to 6,000 instead of 2,000 units) and creating more significant peaks in vehicle arrivals. Finally, many car factories haven’t yet adapted their output to the decrease in customer demand.

The combined harbour of Antwerp-Zeebrugge is the world’s largest car-handling port.


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