Economic recovery fills the industry's sails

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am

IN SOME WAYS, boats are like property. People can buy or rent them - and some even choose to live on them. In this city, people love to sail.

Hong Kong's rich marine environment has generated a thriving boating industry that is much larger than those of most Asian seaports.

The region is ideal for pleasure boating. There are more than 300 islands to explore and the seas along the coastline are relatively safe and calm almost all year.

The economic recovery is reflected in the growing volume of leisure boating activity.

'The pleasure boat industry has picked up well in Hong Kong following the downturn in the late '90s - much faster than Singapore,' said Bill Hutchison, group general manager of Simpson Marine, a leading powerboat and luxury yacht dealer in Asia.

'There are lots of places in Hong Kong to go by boat,' he said.

'There's also a strong weekend boating culture here. We have attractive bays and great seafood restaurants, which are within easy reach on day trips. Singapore doesn't have such facilities, so there isn't the same level of interest.'

Simpson Marine employs about 50 staff in regional offices and has 13 employees at its head office in Hong Kong. The company expects boat sales to continue to rise as the local economy stabilises. It also hopes to introduce luxury yacht charters in Hong Kong and the region in the near future.

Yacht charters will have a positive effect on local jobs,' Mr Hutchison said. 'Powerboats and mega-yachts may be expensive for the average consumer, but they do create many jobs in the industry.

'The bigger boats must have captains, engineers and crew. Then there is maintenance work. With multimillion-dollar vessels, the requirements can be considerable and so there's employment for many people,' Mr Hutchison said.

'We are trying to bring the big-boat charter industry from the Caribbean and Mediterranean to Asia. We feel sailing enthusiasts there are tired of the same old scene, and the marinas in the Mediterranean are full,' he said.

The governments of Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are keen to attract and develop such charters and are building facilities to cater to them but, according to Mr Hutchison, it may take two years to five years to see any significant growth in regional chartering.

The Beijing Olympics in 2008 are expected to give a boost to China and Asia's pleasure boat industry.

'We expect that during the Olympics there will be a stream of big yachts basing themselves as close as they can get to the [venue of the] games. This might lead them to explore what Asia has to offer and help develop the regional boating infrastructure,' Mr Hutchison said.

Russ Parker, director of 22 North, a firm that advises on sailing and organises yacht races, also believed China should develop its pleasure-boating facilities.

'China lacks marinas,' he said. 'There are only two - in Shenzhen and Qingdao. There are plenty of projects being talked about, but they require investment. China has huge potential, but I think it needs another two years or three years to get going.'

When it comes to buying a boat, the choice is essentially between a powerboat and a sailing boat. The former is more popular in Hong Kong.

Mr Parker said powerboats accounted for about 80 per cent of the market. Demographic factors were behind the disparity. Sailing boats are more popular among the expatriates, while powerboats are favoured by the much larger local population.

'The powerboats in Hong Kong are probably about 90 per cent locally owned, whereas sailing boats are perhaps split equally between expats and locals.'

He said there was considerable enthusiasm for sailing activities in small yachts and dinghies at clubs such as the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and the Sai Kung Yacht Club, but the powerboat market remained strong.

Most people prefer renting boats to buying them. At the most, they hire junks to host private parties, corporate events, weddings, business launches - or just for a different experience. However, the demand is big enough to support many chartered companies offering junks and small cruise vessels for private use.

Saffron Cruises, launched only a year ago, has become one of the leading providers of cruise boats and junks and has carved a niche for itself in the luxury end of the market.

Garry Smith, the company's managing director, said recent changes in junk ownership trends had given the company various advantages.

'Many companies have sold their corporate junks and now rely on companies such as Saffron Cruises for quality vessels with full catering services and professional staff,' Mr Smith said.

'If they have a long-term chartering package with us, our boats can fly their company flags and have banners so that they look like corporate junks - but without the worries of maintaining the boats, the staff and the moorings,' he said.

The company's clients include organisations such as Microsoft, Four Seasons and Louis Vuitton. It also provides services to families and private groups that want to hire a boat for a special day out.

A variety of staff are required as crew for the junks. The firm employs full-time and part-time staff to man and maintain its seven boats.

'We need skippers, deckhands with a good level of English, party planners and managers to co-ordinate bookings, payments, catering and so on.

'We also need meeters and greeters, and waiters to make sure the glasses are full and dinner is served on time,' Mr Smith said.