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Credit line buoys up Swiss merchant navy

Corviglia is one of 32 ships flying the Swiss flag

The Swiss government wants to make sure the country's merchant navy stays afloat and has decided to boost its financial guarantee to SFr1.1 billion ($890 million).

The cabinet said on Wednesday that the SFr500 million increase, if approved by parliament, will ensure that vital supplies would still make their way into the country if a major crisis broke out.

At first glance, the idea of the Swiss having a merchant navy seems as incongruous as their yacht winning the America's Cup.

Yet landlocked Switzerland has managed both, thanks to political will and a billionaire's passion.

The Swiss have had a fleet since the Second World War.

At that time, Switzerland could not find enough neutral ships to bring in cereals, coal and other vital commodities from North and South America to Mediterranean ports.

Currently, 32 merchant ships fly under the Swiss flag – 27 bulk carriers and five tankers. They are operated by six Swiss shipping companies and can transport up to 900,000 tonnes.

The sector already has a credit line of SFr600 million, which was approved by parliament in 2002, and was to run for ten years. This will now have a life span of 15 years.

More cash

The government said that more time and money were needed to ensure the modernisation and development of the fleet. The rising cost of shipping was one reason given for the extra credit.

The extra credit line, say the authorities, will encourage ship-owners to acquire at least two special tankers, which can transport mineral oil and other fluids.

Additional funding would also be used to persuade owners to register their vessels in Switzerland.

The government is taking what it considers a minimal risk. Since it started providing a financial guarantee in 1959, the authorities have never had to part with any funds.

The Federal Office for National Economic Supply can decide what use the ships are put to, if necessary. In a worst-case scenario, the government can commandeer the carriers.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The Swiss merchant fleet is small player on the global scene, which counts 50,000 navies and gross tonnage of 600 million tonnes.
Currently, 32 ships fly the Swiss flag in international waters.
Swiss sailors used to be partly paid by the government, while working in non-Swiss fleets.
This arrangement came to an end in 1994.
In 2002 Swiss sailors accounted for about three per cent of all sailors worldwide.

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