Bahamas makes waves as a shipping registry

Six years after opening its register to foreign shipowners, this small island nation is steaming ahead as one of the world's fastest-growing registration centers.

''Given the dire straits of the shipping industry, the Bahamian registry has shown surprising and remarkable growth over the past two years,'' says Philip Loree, chairman of the Federation of American Controlled Shipping (FACS).

Although for technical reasons American shipowners have been slow to use the Bahamian register, the fleet's gross tonnage has quadrupled to more than 800,000 tons since 1981 and should exceed 1 million by the end of the year.

Because of their tax advantages and limited restrictions, open registries, or flags of convenience, as they are better known, have grown rapidly since World War II. Today they account for more than one-quarter of the world's merchant fleet, enabling companies with high-cost national flags to provide shipping services at lower cost.

Shipowners began looking at the Bahamas three years ago after a coup in Liberia, the world's leading flag of convenience. The stability, proximity to the United States, and well-established reputation as a tax haven and offshore banking center proved a strong drawing card for the Bahamas.

Now the Bahamian register may be in for another spurt of growth. In 1997 a part of the British crown colony of Hong Kong, which also maintains an open register, is due to revert to China under the terms of a 19th-century treaty. With Hong Kong shipowners controlling some 20 percent of all open-registry tonnage, the Bahamas intends to be well positioned for the change.

Last month Prime Minister Lynden Pindling and a group of top-level government officials spent 10 days in Hong Kong and Tokyo promoting the Bahamian register. (Japanese shipowners control another 11 percent of open-registry shipping.)

Judging from the response, the government is confident that as the shipping market starts to recover from the recession, the Bahamas, rather than other centers, will benefit from the registration of new carriers by Far Eastern owners.

Efforts, however, to attract US shipowners have proved disappointing, even though the Bahamas Merchant Shipping Act was amended last year at American request to allow foreign owners to commit their Bahamian-registered ships to the effective control of their home governments in time of war or national emergency.

US military authorities maintain that the changes still lack the flexibility required by the US Effective Control Act. American owners are still impressed by the high standards required of ships coming under Bahamian registry.

To avoid being stigmatized by the poor safety record generally attributed to flags of convenience, the Bahamian government accepts only those ships able to meet the strictest international standards of construction, safety, and crew competency.

''We have no intention of sacrificing quality for quantity or allowing the fleet to expand beyond the supervisory capacity of the Ministry of Transport,'' says Transport Minister Philip Bethel.

Last December the FACS, whose members control about 30 percent of all open-registry tonnage, voted to add the Bahamas to the list of three open-registry countries approved by the federation, provided it was also recognized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff for purposes of effective US control.

Countries already qualified are Liberia, Panama, and Honduras. But with Honduras's lessening importance over the years, the Bahamas became the logical third choice, Mr. Loree noted.

To accommodate US shipowners, the Transport Ministry will open a New York office next month to supplement one already operating in London. It is unlikely to be all smooth sailing, however.

There is strong pressure from maritime unions in the traditional North European shipping countries and the shipping division of the UN Committee on Trade and Development to phase out flags of convenience.

UNCTAD insists that there should be a ''genuine link'' between the ship and the country of registration, including location of the ship's operating company in the flag country.

The Bahamas is in a unique position to encourage such ties and is eager to do so because of the long-term benefits. United States Steel's shipping subsidiary, the Navios Corporation, operated successfully from the Bahamas for 25 years until economic considerations forced consolidation of all shipping operations in New York in 1980.

Navios left behind a large nucleus of well-trained Bahamian marine specialists. Now Europe's Vaslov Group, which already has two ships on the register, is preparing to open a Nassau office, and several other shipping companies have indicated they intend to follow suit.

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