In the past few years, there has been a substantial shift in the national registry of ships. Norway and England, the traditional flag nations, have 16- and 10-vessel fleets, respectively -­ compared to Greece with 25 ships; Panama with 22; and the Bahamas and Liberia with eight each. Italy and Holland have five and four, respectively. A rising cruise nation is the Soviet Union with 26 ships.

"I think we are seeing an exodus away from national-flag cruise ships toward flags of convenience," said Richard Frost, U.S. general manager of Det Norske Veritas, the Norwegian ship classification society. "Ships registered in Liberia or Panama no longer imply lower standards, quality or safety; it is solely a political and financial issue," he added.

One dramatic example of this shift toward flags of convenience is Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's recent decision to register its new ship in Liberia. All present RCCL ships sail under the Norwegian flag.

"The new ship will continue to operate with Norwegian deck and engine crew on board; and it will uphold the same standards and Norwegian flavor as our other ships," said a source at RCCL. "A Liberian flag on the stern will not detract from the experience," he added.

Paquet Cruises' recently shifted the flags of the Mermoz and Rhapsody from French to Bahamian.

"Mermoz made the shift two months ago during her period in drydock," said a spokesperson at the line, but declined to reveal specific reasons. "At one time a ship's registry meant more, but now that so many ships are cruising under flags of convience, and more are on their way, it is becoming less important," she added, noting that Paquet did a four-month study to determine which flag to go with.

According to many of the cruise lines polled - primarily those sailing under flags of convenience - a ship's registry has little or no impact on the cruise passenger. Its on board services, ambiance, amenities, and cruise fares are the more important features.

"As far as passengers are concerned, there are no positive or negative aspects associated with a ship's registry. They neither consider, nor are they aware of, the ship's registry," according to a source at Cunard. "When we purchased Vistafjord and Sagafjord, we had to change their registry to keep the original crew, so a flag of convenience was our only option. It has in no way affected the product, and both ships have retained their high image and Scandinavian flavor," he added, noting that though identical, the line's Cunard Princess and Cunard Countess sail under different flags, and he has never once been questioned why.

There are some exceptions to this general sentiment.

For example, Costa Cruises publicizes its ships' Italian registry.

"The Italian flag is a very integral part of our marketing program," said Howard Fine, president of Costa. "The Italian identification has done wonders for passenger expectations, and it gives travel agents a convenient 'handle' to put on our product," he added. (Two Costa ships, Danae and Daphne, are on charter to the line, and sail under the Greek flag.)

The Norwegian cruise lines also emphasize their ships' Norwegian registry.

American Hawaii Cruises, which features the only large U.S.-flag ships, uses its American registry extensively in its marketing, and uses it to convey the feeling of 'home away from home', according to the line.

Nevertheless, sources report that there is generally little flag loyalty among cruise passengers, and therefore more shifts to flags of convenience can be expected if financial considerations warrant them.