Tardy Hong Kong missing the cruise boat
If becoming a cruise hub is so important to Hong Kong, why was it left for more than a decade to begin work on the old Kai Tak airport site?
It took the Hong Kong government 10 years after the airport moved to call for tenders to develop the old Kai Tak airport site and slap a cruise terminal at one end. And it has taken another two years on top of that for the first foot to finally step on the first shovel to begin preparation work.
By the time Rip van Winkle wakes up Hong Kong should have its long awaited cruise terminal and instantly be transformed into a cruise hub befitting “Asia’s World City”. According to official government blather, anyway. Chief executive Donald Tsang (in effect the mayor of Hong Kong) even managed to squeeze the cruise terminal into his annual policy address on Wednesday (Oct 14), saying it would be a "significant move" to lure in tourists.
It is rubbish, of course. By the time the terminal is online in 2013 it could easily be a day late and a dollar short, or maybe that should be four years late and $300 million dollars short.
There is no question that Hong Kong is way overdue for a new cruise terminal. The current Ocean Terminal can only accommodate vessels of less than 100,000 tonnes, forcing larger cruise liners to tie up at a Modern Terminals berth in the Kwai Chung container port. This is not an ideal situation, especially considering the trend towards deploying larger cruise ships to serve Asia's growing market. It’s hardly a blast for passengers to be jammed in a container terminal, either. "Hey Martha, take a look at the plumber's trousers on that gantry operator."
The trade slowdown means it is easier to find berthing windows at the once busy box terminals, but of course it also means fewer cruise passengers.
But how about this: Tourism board figures show that 500,000 mainlanders boarded cruises in Hong Kong last year, but the majority were interested only in overnight gambling trips. Just 80,000 continued on to other destinations. So much for being a major tourism launch pad.
The tender process has not been a smooth one, either. The government first issued a call for tenders in 2007 but was unhappy with the bids submitted and issued a re-tender earlier this year. The winner will be announced sometime this quarter.
The initial bids were rejected because they asked for additional commercial space to be made available for development. The tender is to design, build, operate, manage and maintain the new cruise terminal for 50 years, but the cost for a developer will be so high that without large expanses of commercial space in which to fleece the hell out of consumers it was not worth their while.
Yet even as the city attempts to attract more of the cruise business, it is facing strong regional competition. Hong Kong's nemesis Shanghai is planning to build a terminal, but closer to home the port of Xiamen also has a terminal in its future. Established ports in Singapore, Korea and Japan need to be factored in, too.
Fortunately for Hong Kong, there are an abundance of destinations in the region all relatively close together and ideally suited for a busy Asian cruise itinerary, and once the two berths at Kai Tak are completed, they may even be fully utilised. But with four years to go until they are hooked up, Hong Kong’s hub hopes are by no means assured.