PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 September, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 September, 2002, 12:00am

ONE KEY INSIGHT into why we should be on our guard about this consultancy proposal that we build at least two more cruise liner berths comes from consultant Scott Lagueux himself.

'After the Hong Kong Disney opens, Disney may want to link its park in Tokyo with the one in Hong Kong with cruise tours,' he said last week.

You can just picture it. Let us say that Disney also gets what would no doubt be its dream location for such a terminal - right beside the Lantau Disney park. You would then have Disney patrons who would not even need a Hong Kong dollar in their pockets to spend a few days here.

Straight from the ship to the park and back to the ship they would go, eating imported foods, amusing themselves with foreign-themed entertainments and being served by migrant labour.

It would be a Disney tour, not a Hong Kong tour, and you would not need more than the fingers of one hand to count what they would leave in the Hong Kong economy itself, probably in cents even then.

In fact, even if the cruise terminal were located in the harbour they would not leave much here. A cruise operator is not stupid. If his passengers have money to spend he would prefer they spend it on the ship. That is why the meal pass comes with the ticket and all new cruise ships have extensive shopping malls.

It is the standard complaint of the impoverished Caribbean islands that these ships so heavily patronise. The big money boat comes and goes, keeping all of its money on board and the islanders remain poor.

Of course you cannot expect the operators to admit this proven fact of life about cruise tours. The study released last week claimed we would get economic benefits of $3.3 billion by 2010.

For 'economic benefits' you can read 'wool over your eyes'. It is a very loose term and certainly does not mean money in your pockets. At best it means money in the pockets of the operators. Let us define this claim precisely. Bulls**t.

So the first question to ask in light of how little money cruise tours are known to leave at their stops is the obvious one. Who will pay for these new berths?

It is a question that was notable for its absence in the report we published yesterday on the consultancy study (Cruise bonanza may sail past HK). The headline actually says it all. The emphasis was on how cruise ships may go elsewhere unless we accommodate them, a whinge that tourism boosters regularly turn into a full opera.

Let us ask it anyway. If running a cruise terminal is such a money spinner our government would not need to put any money into it. All it would need to do is designate some land for it and let private sector operators bid for it.

Now I expect that this is what government will in fact do but I also expect it will grovel at the feet of the operators by granting that land almost for free or at a peppercorn rent. Massive giveaways of prime real estate have become a hallmark of the Tung Chee-hwa administration.

So spare a moment of pity for those people in the Treasury who have been trying to work out a consistent policy for the returns government should get from public concessions, only to be sandbagged every time by Mr Tung's henchmen.

I can guess what will happen. The tourism industry will scream in protest at any price for the land that is likely to meet even the minimum Treasury targets and it will get what it wants, a gift from the public coffers to the pockets of foreign cruise ship owners, all justified with bafflegab about nebulous social benefits and vaporous economic returns.

And you really thought, did you, that we had a chance of trimming our huge fiscal deficit?




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