Situated on France’s often rainy north-western coast and the principal ferry crossing point between the UK and European continent, Calais’ media attention of late has stemmed mainly from its place at the centre of Europe’s migrant crisis.

The city has been overwhelmed with what is now estimated to be about 6000 migrants and refugees camped in what has been called the 'Calais jungle', a roughly 4-kilometre (km) area of squalid makeshift camps, who are trying to reach the UK. Mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchart has demanded increased help from the French and British governments for security and immigration to manage the situation. In March, the UK government pledged £17m (€21.4m) in aid to bolster security at Calais and help relocate migrants to other parts of France. The city’s commerce has been hit by the migrant crisis, and without an immediate and effective solution, the outlook for further economic damage remains grim.

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Alternative routes 

Calais’s economy is reliant on its role as a central point for EU and UK trade and travel. About 10 million passengers and £89bn-worth of UK trade pass through the port of Calais each year, and a further 20 million passengers travel through the Channel Tunnel on the Eurostar train or the Shuttle, according to a report by the UK Home Affairs Committee.

“The growing number, and living conditions, of migrants in Calais, and the enhanced security measures brought in to counter them, have affected the residents of Calais, the reputation of the port of Calais, and the ease with which trade and traffic can pass between the UK and the continent,” the report said.

Increased security measures and border controls have resulted in freight traffic disruptions and slowed transport. The hours spent stalled on the roads are believed to leave drivers vulnerable to sporadic confrontations with migrants desperate to reach the UK, which has led to violent clashes. Subsequently, importers and exporters are now looking at alternative routes to the Channel Tunnel, particularly North Sea ports for both transport and UK imports.

UK Ferry operators have recorded increased volumes of heavy goods vehicles crossing the North Sea to reach Europe; UK-based P&O Ferries recorded a 172% year-on-year increase on its route from England’s Teesport to Belgium’s Zeebrugge port – which lies about 130 kilometres from Calais.

“Exporters know the value and time-sensitive nature of their deliveries, whether they are perishable goods or manufacturing components,” Janette Bell, commercial director of P&O Ferries, said in a report by shipping and maritime intelligence and business information provider Lloyd’s List Intelligence. “It is significant that they are now becoming increasingly aware of the alternative North Sea routes to the continent.”

The Greater Association for the Calais Region, which represents a number of business groups in Calais, is lobbying the French government to declare an “exceptional state of economic catastrophe” in the city. The association estimates that commerce in businesses and restaurants in Calais has dropped by up to 40%. There has also been a 25% drop in the number of tourists over the past year. Paris has pledged €120m in financial aid, but many in Calais say more action is needed, especially from the UK.

Business as usual? 

Eurotunnel, which operates the Channel Tunnel, plans to extend the tunnel for the first time in its history by 600 metres, with a concrete covered section aimed to stop migrants from entering. Severe disruptions began in mid-2015 involving large numbers of migrants storming the tunnel, and Eurotunnel is now claiming €29m in lost revenue from the French and UK governments, who are responsible for border security. The governments will also be funding the €4.7m required for the tunnel extension project.

In an effort to draw attention away from the migrant situation and onto the city’s own investment initiatives, Ms Bouchart promoted Calais’ upcoming developments at the Mipim 2016 global property conference in Cannes.

“Over the past few weeks, relations with the UK have become more constructive,” she said. “In terms of port and tunnel security as well as economic relations between our countries, we have discussed how we can enable more constructive communication.” She also spoke of the economic potential of expanding connections with England’s south-eastern county of Kent, saying: “We are seeing how enterprises from Kent... can have partnerships, because Kent also suffers economically. We also have a project under development – the feasibility study of the trans-Channel metro – to improve the commute between Kent and the French coast.”

Other major investment projects in Calais include the €650m Calais Port 2015 project, the €270m 'Heroic Land' amusement park, expansions of the tunnel and logistics bases requiring €600m of investment, and the Golf de Sangatte eco village and resort. In total, €1.7bn is to be invested into the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region over the next five years, the mayor said.