Kai Tak cruise terminal just an excuse to spend money like water

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2011, 12:00am


After years of discussion, Hong Kong's bid to enter the big league of cruise line destinations has finally got off the drawing board.

SCMP, April 9

And there we had Donald plus a line of underlings done up in shining, gold-tinted hard hats, drinking champagne and applauding themselves at having started construction of the new Kai Tak cruise terminal.

A successful launch indeed. Once again the entire lot of them managed to evade the two crucial questions about Hong Kong's subsidies of cruise touring: (1) What have we got to offer to put Hong Kong in the big league of global cruise line destinations? (2) What real benefit does it bring us even if we do?

The first question is easy to answer. The biggest draw to cruise tours in this part of the world is Hong Kong harbour. I have arrived by ship and it is a magnificent visual feast after the emptiness of the ocean. We may not have it much longer with the way Donald and Co keep narrowing it to turn it into the Kowloon Ditch, but for the moment it's still grand.

Aside from that, in this part of world we have Vietnam's Ha Long Bay and ... well ... yes ... hmmmm ... Shall we try Taiwan's Kaohsiung Harbour with its magnificent cargo facilities? Perhaps the aromatic waters of Manila Bay in the Philippines could be a draw. Perhaps not.

The fact is that cruises to and from Hong Kong are mostly gambling cruises - open the casinos quick, float around a bit and then return the bleary-eyed gamblers to where they came from. Star Cruises is the only line that has really tried to make a go of it, not always successfully, while the big name ships call in only because they are on three-month round-the-world cruises, which means they have to go past Asia. Might as well stop in somewhere in that case.

We don't have the glacier inlets of Alaska, the sun and sand charms of the West Indies, the quaint old towns of the Mediterranean and, most of all, we are too distant from the major cruise markets. People have to fly too far to get here.

So here is a relevant factoid for you. Passenger arrivals in the harbour from ocean-going vessels amount to less than 0.33 per cent of total arrivals to Hong Kong. You should not really be surprised.

Right, to Question No 2 then. What real benefit do cruise tours bring us? Answer: As little as cruise operators can manage. These cruise ships do not maintain their own onboard shopping malls without reason. They offer the same fashion gee-gaws in which our shops specialise. Cruise directors remind passengers of this.

But it would make no difference anyway. The contribution of tourism to Hong Kong's economy is the money that tourists spend less what we pay to import the goods they buy, and very few of these goods are not imported. I lie. They are all imported.

The same goes for restaurant spending, sightseeing tours and hotels (although cruise tourists mostly sleep on board). Take out what we import - for restaurants the food, for tours the tour buses and for hotels the construction, food, linen and furniture - and what you have left is mostly low wages for menial labour (it's almost all menial in tourism) and profits for the hotel/shop/airline lobby. It's not a mix that moves Hong Kong upmarket. It's one that freezes us where we are. Tourism is not really such a great blessing after all.

But the lobby keeps holding its corporate begging bowl up to the public purse and once again Donald and Co have filled it.

The government could not find any private entities to build and operate a new cruise terminal. The simple reason was that the business is too meagre. It's not worth doing. If there really was any money in it every developer would have fallen over themselves to bid for it long ago. They have not done so.

Rather than taking this as a valid comment on the economics of a cruise terminal, however, the government decided to build this thing at its own cost and then let private operators take their turn after capital costs were covered. Ka-floooosh. That was the sound of our public money doing a disappearing trick again.

Throughout this process no one has once thought of turning to the cruise lines and saying, 'Well, fellas, if you think it's such a superb deal, why don't you put some money down for it or give us binding commitments on passengers landed. You're the biggest beneficiaries. Cough up.'

Oh, but that would not be how we flip the public coin with such people. It's only done on the basis of heads they win, tails we lose.