An estimated 1,000 ships pass through the English Channel every day. Many of them stop at Antwerp's gigantic harbor, one of the busiest ports in the world. The port's strategic position in the heart of what has been referred to as the "golden triangle" in northwestern Europe has made it a regular port of call for traffic from all over the world.
An example of Antwerp's international attraction is the fact that the city's most modern sports complex is not for one of the town's professional soccer clubs or a prestige school; it is a private recreation facility built by the Soviet Union for the approximately 40,000 Soviet sailors that pass through Antwerp Harbor each year.
They and thousands of others have made the port a top general-cargo facility and one of the five largest container ports in the world. In addition it is a major industrial center, where oil refineries' petroleum byproducts are carried by pipeline to European markets.
Antwerp's main attraction for shippers the world over is the fact that its position 40 to 50 miles inland makes it more central than any other European port near the Continent's industrial heartland. Antwerp officials proudly note that within 250 miles of the port are such cities as Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Lille, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and even London.
The city is not only well served by rail and road systems leading to these regions, but it is also at the end of Belgium's 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) of inland canal network. It is therefore not surprising that inland waterway carriers move about half the traffic in and out of Antwerp, according to recent reports. And about half that traffic passes right through Belgium to other destinations.
Last year traffic in the port surpassed the all-time high reached in 1974, established just after the opening of the pipeline from Antwerp to the world's largest port, at nearby Rotterdam. Slightly more than 80 million tons were handled in the Antwerp docks in 1979, 11 percent more than in 1978, and clearly more than the 1974 record of 76.1 million tons.
Arrivals surged by 18 percent, while loadings increased a modest 2.6 percent. The biggest increases in traffic over 1978 were registered in coal, which soared 70 percent, followed by minerals, up 27 percent, and fertilizers, also up 21 percent.
There was a decline of about 1 million tons, however, in grain traffic. Port officials worry that there will be a further slip this year as a result of the American grain limitation on Soviet shipments, much of it traditionally transferred to Soviet ships here. There was also a drop in steel traffic because of the world slump in that and related industries.
But a delegation from the port was in the United States recently to promote additional transatlantic traffi. Major investments have also been undertaken at another nearby Belgian port at Zeebrugge.
The Antwerp delegation visited its counterparts in New York, New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, and Savannah. There are some 36 regular service lines between Antwerp and 52 American ports. But officials noted that traffic from Antwerp to the US East Coast is larger than shipments toward the Belgian port, with the US embargo of grain to the Soviet Union probably adding to the imbalance.
According to authorities at Zeebrugge, near the medieval city of Bruges, the number of ships arriving there last year increased 3.9 percent, to 9,000, with total tonnage rising 11.9 percent. To accommodate further growth, the Belgian government has begun a massive extension of the port facilities there aimed especially at handling traffic to and from Britain.