Hong Kong's shipping register has started the new year with the addition of five vessels of 150,000 gross registered tonnes (grt). A Marine Department spokesman said the register had 489 vessels with a total of 5.81 million grt. However, the shipping register is still 2.21 million grt lower than the December 31, 1996, total of 7.87 million grt. On December 31 last year the figure was 5.66 million grt. The register had 544 vessels at the end of 1996, compared with 484 at the end of last year. The spokesman said 46 vessels, of 860,000 grt, had been taken from the register since the return of Hong Kong to China. Another 29 vessels, of 750,000 grt, had been put on the register in the same period. He said owners' decisions to drop off the register were totally commercial. Secretary for Economic Services Stephen Ip said the SAR's independent shipping register, though having a history of just seven years, had gained recognition as being one of the world's best. He said Hong Kong owners and shipping companies owned or controlled ocean-going vessels (including those registered overseas) of 55 million dwt, accounting for 8 per cent of the total global tonnage. More than 1,000 shipping and related companies operate in Hong Kong. Mr Ip said the Government was implementing a series of measures to strengthen the SAR's position as an international shipping centre. He said shipping registration fees and procedures were being reviewed to cut costs and to attract more vessels to the register. 'We are actively studying the proposal of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, which seeks to improve our freight tax arrangements and alleviate local shipping companies of their tax burden overseas,' he said. The Hong Kong Shipowners Association and the Trade Development Council are considering holding promotional activities overseas to encourage more overseas companies to set up offices. Mr Ip said the scope and mode of operation of the Hong Kong Seamen's Training Centre were being reviewed to meet the needs of the port modernisation. 'We hope to encourage more young people to join the shipping industry through the offering of new courses,' he said. Together with the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, international maritime organisations and associations such as the Asian Shipowners Forum (ASF) were being lobbied to set up respective secretariats in Hong Kong, he added. This move was aimed at bringing together shipowners associations in Asia to consider setting up an insurance market for vessels in the region, Mr Ip said. 'We believe that these measures can attract more vessels to register here to further strengthen our position as an international shipping centre,' he said. George Chao, head of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association's insurance sub-committee, said the issue of establishing a permanent ASF secretariat would be discussed in May at the next ASF meeting, which will be held at the Gold Coast in Australia.