An undesirable first glimpse of Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 January, 2004, 12:00am

The arrival of the luxury cruise liner Sapphire Princess in Hong Kong next year should mark a high point for the tourism industry.

More than 2,000 passengers, eager to explore the city and, no doubt, to spend here, will sail majestically into the harbour aboard one of the world's finest cruise ships. Unfortunately, however, these top-end tourists will not be berthing at a site which offers them the best of introductions to Hong Kong. Instead of stepping into a five-star shopping mall amid our famed skyscrapers, they will find themselves in the middle of a bustling container terminal. Their first close-up glimpse of the city will be one of barges, cargo boxes, trucks and cranes. This is not a first impression we would want them to have.

The reason for the rather unappealing choice of berth lies in a debate that has been rumbling inconclusively for years over Hong Kong's future as a top-level cruise destination. Special arrangements have been made to allow the Sapphire Princess to berth at a container terminal in Kwai Chung in April next year. If this had not been done, the liner would have been unable to call at all. This is because the water at Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui, the only pier capable of handling larger ships, is not deep enough for a vessel of this size. The world's largest cruise liner, the Queen Mary 2, will reluctantly give Hong Kong a miss on a voyage later this year for the same reason. It is a sorry state of affairs.

Ocean Terminal was built 48 years ago at a time when liners tended to carry hundreds of passengers. But a new class of much bigger cruise liners requiring expanded berthing facilities has emerged. The tourism industry has long been calling for a modern terminal to be built. A multi-purpose terminal capable of berthing the world's largest liners, complete with top-class transport, accommodation, retail and entertainment facilities, is required. But the development of such a project is problematic. A bid by the Cheung Kong group several years ago to develop a cruise centre in North Point was scrapped after concerns were raised by local residents, environmentalists and the owners of Ocean Terminal. But calls for a new terminal continued to be heard as other parts of the world enhanced their facilities and the cruise ship market continued to grow. One notable proposal last year was for the building of a 10 billion yuan 'cruise city' in Shanghai, intended to be capable of entertaining four to six liners at a time.

The answer seemed to have been provided by Tung Chee-hwa when he announced in 2002 that a state-of-the-art cruise terminal would be built on the old Kai Tak airport site. Last year, the government said it was committed to the project and intended to put it out to tender to the private sector. But progress has stalled, and now concerns over whether planned reclamation on the site meets recently clarified legal requirements mean the project has essentially gone back to the drawing board.

Developing a top-notch cruise terminal necessarily requires careful research and planning. We need to be sure that demand is sufficient to ensure that such a project does not become a white elephant, and that the costs involved are worthwhile. The government has identified the right approach - select an appropriate site and put it out to tender. Then we will see if the private sector is prepared to bear the risk. But we cannot afford to drag our feet for much longer.

There is every reason to believe a new terminal would succeed. Hong Kong, with its identity so closely tied to the harbour, is a natural destination for the world's top cruise liners. But that state of affairs will not last long if their only option is to berth at a container terminal.