HK must take a new tack as race host

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am

The government can finally rid itself of the HarbourFest baggage by throwing its weight behind the proposal to bring the newly formed Louis Vuitton World Series to Hong Kong next year, says top yachtsman Karl Kwok.

While the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club eagerly awaits the decision in the next few weeks from the Home Affairs Bureau and Development Bureau on funding for the regatta and the race village, leading yachtsmen believe it is an opportunity Hong Kong cannot afford to miss.

The event would bring America's Cup-class yachts and their crews to Victoria Harbour to compete in a series of match races over two weeks in November next year.

The yacht club's proposal is dependent on the government approving a HK$10 million handout from the Mega Events Fund. It said last month that the proposal had merit in attracting visitors and bringing economic benefits.

The balance of the budget - estimated to be over Euro4 million (HK$45.6 million) - would be provided by Louis Vuitton, the newly formed World Sailing Team Association and associated sponsors.

Kwok, president of the Hong Kong Sailing Federation and a winner of the Sydney-to-Hobart race, said Hong Kong needed to prove it really was 'Asia's world city' and not just a pretender.

'We need something like this to show that we mean what we say about ourselves,' he said. 'Just look at what the other 'Asia's world city' has been doing. Singapore has already hosted international sports events like the Formula One Grand Prix and the Volvo Ocean Race stopover in January this year.

'The new Louis Vuitton World Series is in the same league. Yes, we do have the very successful annual Hong Kong Rugby Sevens and the Stanley Dragon Boat Festival, but we can do more to host sporting events.

'The government still has this HarbourFest baggage,' Kwok added, referring to the HK$100 million fund given to a post-severe acute respiratory syndrome party which turned into a public relations nightmare.

'I am sure the government, which has to play the part as the host city, would now know how not to repeat the past mistakes.'

The HK$10 million from the Mega Events Fund would seem a drop in the ocean compared to the benefit that hosting an international sailing event would bring to Hong Kong.

A similar regatta - the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series held in Auckland in February - brought huge financial benefits, even in a challenging economic climate. The boost to the economy was estimated at NZ$16 million (HK$88.9 million). The marine industry is said to have generated at least NZ$9 million in additional business. Hospitality and tourism reaped NZ$5.44 million.

Yacht club commodore Warwick Downes believes 'hundreds of thousands' of people would watch the racing and visit the race village, which is slated for piers 9 and 10 on the Central waterfront opposite City Hall.

'I am very confident this event would benefit everyone in Hong Kong, not just sailors,' Downes said. 'Hong Kong offers the most spectacular harbour vista. Approval of the Mega Fund requires 10,000 spectators. As the race village in Hong Kong will be in the middle of Central and access will be free to the public, we have absolutely no doubt people will see the boats from the vantage point of their offices, from waterfront hotels, and that spectators will gravitate down from Central to the race village on the harbourfront.'

Downes said the village would have simulators and a large screen to view the racing.

'If you look at what happens in Sydney Harbour and foreshores every Boxing Day, it is not hard to imagine that for the two weeks of racing and one week of practising that spectators will be watching from Central, Causeway Bay, Wan Chai, TST and Quarry Bay Park,' he said.

'The Marine Department was involved in initial discussions and felt confident the scheme is workable and will not cause major disruptions to harbour activities. The harbour will not close for the racing or practising.

'You can imagine the big boats coming up to North Point and all along Hung Hom promenade. Honestly, it will be a sight to behold. These incredible boats are going to stand out on the main harbour.

'The fact that Hong Kong is such a narrow harbour is a benefit for this event as people on either side of the foreshores will be close enough to see the boats. And as was the case in Auckland, we are also planning a youth sailing event right out the front of the village.

'Hong Kong people know about windsurfing from Lee Lai-shan's gold medal at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, but mono-hull match racing is a new concept to them. We are planning bilingual radio coverage. If you use the parallel of the Olympics, people here knew little about the equestrian world but soon became conversant with the enormous spectacle of it.

'Our proposal to the Home Affairs Bureau is contingent on two things. Firstly, that we are granted the HK$10 million from the Mega Events Fund, and secondly that we are granted the site at piers 9 and 10. The harbour won't have to be closed. The racing can happen where we host our usual club racing.'

The races in Hong Kong would be the fifth in the series, with the first being in Nice, France, from November 7 to 22 this year.

'The Hong Kong government must realise that the figure the club is asking for is not huge,' said Bruno Trouble, spokesman for the Louis Vuitton World Series.

'In Italy and France, the governments are giving far more than what is being asked in Hong Kong.

'Of all the venues to be approved so far, the crews and I consider Hong Kong to be the most exciting.

'This is because of the spectacular harbour backdrop and because no such international sailing event has been held here before. Hong Kong has never seen anything like this. Hosting the event there would be a dream.'