kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2007, 12:00am

How much longer must Hong Kong suffer the continuing embarrassment of lacking a major item of basic infrastructure? How many more years is the barren landscape of Kai Tak going to sprawl like a gangrenous blot on the harbour?

These questions are linked. We do not have a major modern cruise terminal and plans for the old Kai Tak airport still seem to be floating in the air like a wayward balloon.

It's a town planning disaster. It's the shame of our much-vaunted tourism industry.

How would you like to pay for a cruise on the world's most luxurious liner and end up stacked away behind mountains of containers on the seamy side of scenic Kwai Chung? If I was a millionaire holidaymaker, I would be more than peeved.

Commissioner for Tourism Au King-chi contends that as a key player in the tourism industry her agency is committed to seeing the new terminal completed as early as possible. I've heard this before from a series of tourism officials; everyone wants action but nothing ever seems to be done.

Ms Au points out calmly, far too calmly for my liking, that it's not unusual for cruise facilities to lag behind the size of new hyperships.

'There's a time lag between the upgrading of cruise terminal berthing facilities and the building of mega-cruise vessels,' she contends.

Come on! The last aircraft took off from Kai Tak in 1998. Planning for Chek Lap Kok began years before that. Government officials responsible for building our infrastructure have known for 15 years at least that a cruise terminal was high on the list for the Kai Tak site.

And what have they got to show for it? A still-unfinished plan that, all going well, will see the first liner berth there in 2012.

There has been a clamour for years among tourism boosters to try to instil a sense of urgency in the government; this is like prodding an elephant with a wet cabbage.

The government should have staged a worldwide competition for a cruise terminal to rival in maritime terms what we have achieved in aviation at Chek Lap Kok. We've got the best airport in the world. Shouldn't we also have the best terminal for luxury cruise ships?

Instead, we're bogged down in the mire of government procedures, prisoners of the red-tape brigade. Keith Griffiths, the chairman of Aedas, Hong Kong's largest firm of architects, expects normal procedures to be followed, with the land sold at auction to the highest bidder.

'Government will rely on lease conditions to control the ensuing development, which of course is incapable of controlling the quality of the design,' he adds.

'This is the basic problem of our land sales system. Land, a public resource, is sold to the highest bidder without any concern for how the quality of the development will affect the quality of public life. There is no aesthetic, townscape or urban planning, no control on building form, shape, materials or design quality.

'In Hong Kong the dollar reigns supreme. Maximisation of land value is the government's only concern.'

Mr Griffiths says it is in the interest of the developer to create an attractive building and design. But it seems strange, he adds, that a government for the people would surrender responsibility for the visual and aesthetic quality of our harbour and waterfront to a developer.

I agree totally. Shouldn't the government lead and seek public support for a structure which is going to dominate our mid-harbour views?

Shouldn't we be striving for something bold and futuristic that will make a statement about our confidence in the future? I believe so. Will we get that? I doubt it.

John Ap, an associate professor of the Polytechnic's School of Hotel and Tourism Management, despairs.

When the Queen Mary 2 sailed into Sydney, there was a carnival atmosphere in the public greeting of the great vessel.

'What did we do in Hong Kong?' he asks.

'Virtually zilch. So much for our world city status.'

He charges that government has been pussy-footing on the cruise terminal, pandering to developer interests and squabbles about who will get development rights.

'A design competition would be a step in the right direction,' he said.

'I'm a former town planner. I advocate that we get the planning and design right.

'Just take a look at Hong Kong's ugliest public building, the Cultural Centre.

'Here was a golden opportunity. What do we get - a very mundane, boring and faceless structure without even a view of the harbour.

'Let's not repeat this atrocity with a mundane cruise terminal. Let's aim for the best.'