Cruise debate all at sea when it comes to figures

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 June, 1999, 12:00am

The study by the Hong Kong Tourist Association (HKTA) on cruise tourism declares a howling conflict of interest at its very start.

The first objective of the recently released study, conducted in October last year by MVA Asia and now increasingly cited by cruise tour promoters, was 'to carry out an in-depth assessment of the cruise ship markets in the world and the Asia-Pacific region, and in particular the future development potential of the cruise sector in Hong Kong.' But then, in the same sentence, the second objective is given as 'to formulate practical terminal facility options to position Hong Kong as a cruise hub in view of market trends and demand'.

Now that's what we need to see in an independent feasibility study.

First we ask whether we should do something and, without stopping for breath to think about it, we move on to how we should do it.

Then we trumpet it all as 'Study Shows Big Potential For Cruise Market' and tell the world that Hong Kong would 'benefit enormously' from new cruise terminal facilities.

We would certainly have benefited if someone had bothered to look up the meaning of the words 'feasibility study'.

But then asking the HKTA whether we should do something in tourism is perhaps akin to asking a convict whether he should be let out of prison. What answer did you expect? The surprising thing, given its confessed bias in the matter, is that the HKTA's arguments for cruise tour promotion are rather weak.

For instance, while alleging that Western cruise-line operators perceive Hong Kong as a 'must call' in their itineraries, it concedes that the number of ship calls by Western operators has remained relatively constant over the past decade, with only 62 calls recorded in 1997 and half the vessels staying for less than 24 hours.

What sort of 'must call' is that? It also admits that daily spending by cruise ship passengers is much less than the average of visitors to Hong Kong ($1,170 vs $1,900) and tries to explain it by saying that they may have paid for hotels prior to departure.

Odd. If they pre-pay their hotel bills when they get their tickets, does this mean that the hotels do not get the money? Or perhaps, having already paid for a night on their ships, do they sensibly decide not to pay extra to stay in hotels? Then we get the projections on passenger throughput, which seem to be based only on two charts of annual figures, one ending in 1996 and one in 1997, both showing a rising trend, when monthly figures on visitor arrivals by sea are already available for well into 1999 and actually show them dropping since 1996.

There has, yes indeed, been a notable pick-up in short cruises by Hong Kong residents. These are our gambling cruises, a business we dearly need to encourage.

The projections say that without a new cruise terminal we would get only 4 per cent annual growth in passenger throughput (actually 3.7 per cent on a compound annual growth rate. Rounding up is so convenient, isn't it?). This would rise to 9 per cent with a new terminal and one new mega-ship treating Hong Kong as its home port every three years.

Nice figure that 9 per cent. Can someone please tell us how it popped out? It seems to have arisen on the reasoning that if we build the pier and terminal (up to $575 million for construction alone) and get the mega-ships in (70,000 tonnes each. We're not building any ourselves) that the passengers will appear, just like that, right out of the blue.

And let's hope, as the study does, that they come for the ships alone and are happy to do little more than float around at sea. The regional ports of call in reach are a tourist repellent, not a tourist attraction.

Let your correspondent declare his stance on this scheme. He has no objection whatsoever so long as it is not his tax dollars which go to pay for it.



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