Beyond Mainports

Does the position of the dutch mainports demand a different policy approach when viewed in the light of global trends?
tourists pointing at the harbour of Rotterdam as a symbol of beyond mainports


The Dutch economy has benefitted considerably from the growth of Schiphol Airport and Port of Rotterdam: the two ‘mainports’. The mainport concept (taken from the English words ‘main’ and ‘port’) has become a powerful image of national economic development and the mainport policy has contributed to the success of both Schiphol Airport and the Port of Rotterdam. However, various developments have changed how the two mainports contribute to the Dutch economy, and in so doing, have changed what is needed for the Netherlands to remain attractive and competitive in the future. These developments include:

  • the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and the bio-based economy, heightened international competition and the increased importance of value chains of high-end activities

  • new global air and maritime shipping routes (such as more direct intercontinental destinations)

  • smaller differences between western countries in terms of business climate, and increased importance of cohesiveness between locational factors

  • technological innovations that point to a new economic structure

Key recommendations

Give priority to core economic areas

The Council advises the new Dutch Government, which will be appointed in 2017, to implement an integrated policy for improving the country’s international competitiveness and business climate. An integrated vision on the significance of core economic areas (such as the northern and southern wings of the Randstad and the Eindhoven region) for the business climate will allow public-sector investments to be considered within a broader perspective and lead to better policy choices. The Council advises being explicit about the potential contribution of both ports alongside other factors. A policy that uncritically invests in merely increasing the volumes flowing through the ports is inappropriate. Government must first investigate how much volume is needed to achieve critical mass: as long as this level is attained, many economic functions can still be guaranteed while providing scope for other public interests.

A 2040 Business Climate Strategy

The Council acknowledges that, each in its own way, the Port of Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport are and will remain essential to the Dutch business climate. However, mainports are only part of the picture. Excellent digital infrastructure, technological innovation, but also good environmental quality and amenities are critical for attracting businesses, knowledge and talent. Meanwhile, regions such as southeast Asia are becoming increasingly attractive as places to locate headquarters and other business activities. Because of this, the Council advises the Dutch Government to draw up a Business Climate Strategy for 2040. The aim of this strategy should be to bolster the vital economic core areas of the Netherlands. According to the Council, the interaction and cohesion between these core areas with the Port of Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport as well as with the knowledge centre around Eindhoven and with respect to digital infrastructure are more important for the earning potential for the Netherlands than their individual contributions.

Strengthening the regional economic development strategy

An integrated vision on the significance of the core economic areas for the business climate will provide a broader perspective on public-sector investments and allow better policy decisions to be made. The Council advises assessing the different investment options in the 2040 Business Climate Strategy according to their effect on the business climate and to choose those with the greatest impact. The evaluation should not be confined to hard factors such as infrastructure, but include softer factors such as art, green spaces and social inclusion as well. According to the Council, the recent administrative agreement on the regional economic development strategy (REOS) provides a good basis for this. This approach should therefore be strengthened. The REOS takes promising economic developments in urban regions as its point of departure. This is a broader approach than a specific mainport policy and, according to the Council, offers a better outlook for sustained economic success as a result. Improving the complementarity of core economic areas will allow better economic and social results to be achieved. A good business climate is obviously important for attracting international companies, but this climate is also an indication of the variety of qualities that give the Netherlands a high standard of living and make it such a nice place to be – not just for companies and their employees, but everyone.

The Council makes the following recommendations in its advisory report ‘Beyond Mainports’:

a) Create interlinkages between core economic areas in a 2040 Business Climate Strategy

  • Investigate how much volume flows are necessary to achieve a critical mass

b) Consider digital infrastructure as an important precondition for the business climate

  • invest in safety and open access to digital infrastructure

  • stimulate data-driven innovation and knowledge

c) Link sectoral policy challenges together in an integrated Business Climate Strategy

  • strengthen the REOS-approach

  • attach more value to soft business climate factors

  • use the Netherlands as a living lab

d) initiate a wider debate on urgent policy issues

Publication date

On Friday 1 July 2016, Secretary-General Maarten Camps (Ministry of Economic Affairs) and Director-General Mark Frequin (Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment) officially received the advisory report ‘Beyond Mainports’ on behalf of their respective ministers.

An English translation of Part 1 of ‘Beyond Mainports’ is available now.