Fadel said 19,354 ships passed through the waterway in 2008/09, compared with 21,080 in 2007/08, showing an 8.2 per cent decline.

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Egypt suffers from Suez Canal revenue loss

The government has said shrinking canal revenues, one of Egypt's main foreign currency earners, were one of the main factors that caused Egypt's economy to grow by just 4.7 per cent this year - compared to growth of seven per cent over the past three years.

However, Fadel said that the impact on shipping from piracy in the Gulf of Aden off the Horn of Africa had been exaggerated.

"Piracy is a threat that affects not only the Suez Canal, but is also present in many other parts of the world," he said.

'Worst is over'

Fadel was optimistic that things would improve in the coming months.

"We've seen the worst the beginning of this year, though since March things are slowly picking up," he said.

HC Securities wrote in a research report early this month: "Although canal revenue has dropped precipitously over the last two quarters, the upturn in global activity suggests the worst is over for the decline in revenue."

But Reham el-Desoki, an economist with Middle East-based Beltone Financial, said global trade would likely take some time to rebound.

"We expect revenues to inch up to $4.8 billion in fiscal year 2009/10, as we do not expect a significant pick-up in Europe yet," she said.

Egyptian officials announced in 2005 that ships passing through the Suez would be subject to a three per cent increase in tariff charges.

"If the Authority raises its transit fees, it would not have an effect on revenues before April 2010, when new transit fees are usually implemented," Desoki said.

Meanwhile, canal officials are optimistic that new infrastructure improvements will translate into an increase in oil vessel traffic in the coming months.

Fadel said the authority had financed a project to deepen the canal, which is 96 per cent complete.

When finished, the canal will be 66 feet deep, from the current 62 feet, allowing it to handle ships over 240,000 tonnes, up from the current 200,000 tonne limit.