One of the largest companies providing armed guards for shipowners is to open an office in Hong Kong next month to help develop closer business links with Asian shipowners.
Commenting on the move, Paul Gibbins, director of communications for Protection Vessels International, said: 'We are looking for further opportunities in that part of the world.'
Shipping industry insiders said on Friday that the company's executives would visit Hong Kong this week to meet shipowners before opening an office in the city early next month.
Gibbins said most of the firm's clients are owners and managers in northern Europe and the company was keen to broaden its customer base. Ian May, who will head the Hong Kong office, would look for opportunities throughout Asia and allow the company to have a closer physical presence in Asia's shipping community.
The move reflected growing interest by Hong Kong and mainland shipping companies to use armed guards to protect their ships and crews while sailing through pirate-infested waters in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Gibbins said the firm had seen business grow 140 per cent so far this year compared with last year as the global shipping industry increasingly used armed personnel. 'We've been working for two years and clocked up 1,000 transits. We've deterred 23 attacks, all of which avoided any lethal force,' he said.
Gibbins said pirates had changed tactics and now used reconnaissance vessels to see if ships had armed guards or other defensive measures before deciding whether to attack.
At least one Hong Kong shipowner has approached PVI about using its guards, who are all former British Royal Marines.
Wah Kwong Maritime Transport, Pacific Basin Shipping and Valles Steamship have all confirmed they have used or would use armed guards. Shanghai-listed Cosco Shipping said it would spend US$12 million this year on British armed guards, body armour for crew and other measures. Cosco Shipping has also signed deals with security companies for armed guards for the next five years.
PVI is one of the 28 members of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, a trade group which helps the maritime industry identify reputable maritime security companies in the absence of any global regulatory standards for security firms.
PVI's move into Hong Kong coincided with the release by the International Maritime Bureau of its interim report on Thursday which showed there were 17 pirate attacks on ships managed or owned by firms in Hong Kong in the first half of this year. This put the territory fourth behind Germany, Singapore and Greece in a table of ship owners and managers whose ships had been attacked.
By comparison, there were 11 attacks on Hong Kong-registered vessels in the same period, which put Hong Kong sixth in the table of the flag states. One shipping source said this reflected the large number of ships registered in Hong Kong.
Roger Tupper, the Marine Department director, said the Hong Kong fleet was the fifth-largest in the world in terms of gross tonnage, behind Panama, Liberia, Marshall Islands and the Bahamas.
Latest Marine Department figures show there were 1,836 ships totalling 62.27 million gross tonnes registered in Hong Kong.
'No Hong Kong flag ships have been taken by pirates since the advent of the [People's Liberation Army] convoys in the Gulf of Aden,' Tupper said.
The IMB said there were 266 pirate attacks worldwide in the first six months this year, up from 196 incidents in the same period last year. Somali pirates were responsible for 163 of the attacks between January and June compared with 100 last year.
'In the last six months, Somali pirates attacked more vessels than ever before and they're taking higher risks,' said IMB director Pottengal Mukundan. But fewer vessels were hijacked, just 21 in the first half of 2011 compared with 27 in the same period last year, although the IMB said 20 vessels were currently being held together with 420 crew.