Roadblocks still remain on journey to integration
Riding intercity buses has become so much fun for Lu Siu-tsang that she can't wait for the next trip. If she leaves Hong Kong after breakfast at 9.30am, she can get to Chaozhou in Guangdong in time for lunch.
A dense highway network in Guangdong has made trips efficient, and that's why Lu, a 59-year-old Tuen Mun housewife, and her girlfriends enjoy hanging out on bus tours going all over the province and neighbouring Guangxi at least once a month.
'A journey to Chaozhou used to take at least five hours by bus. I'm going back there again next week with my sister. It'll be my third trip there this year,' Lu said. 'I honestly think the current transport system is quite convenient with all the highways. I make frequent trips to the Pearl River Delta and other Guangdong cities and haven't experienced too many problems.'
If Lu is happy travelling the 300 kilometres from Hong Kong to Chaozhou in less than four hours, she will be amazed by what's in store. Guangdong's ambitious urbanisation project over the next five years is set to give the province - especially the Pearl River Delta area, which used to be famed as the world's factory hub - a higher quality of life as efficient transport networks links are built and upgraded. A journey from Shenzhen to Zhanjiang in western Guangdong by high-speed rail will take less than two hours - roughly the same time it takes a Hongkonger to go from Tuen Mun to Stanley.
But compared with Lu's happiness over the convenience of bus travel, rail passengers between Hong Kong and Guangzhou continue to be frustrated by two hang-ups - the immigration and customs checks and an irregular train schedule.
'If people are not able to move around freely, all this talk of integration is simply meaningless,' said Michael Tien Puk-sun, a member of the Guangdong People's Political Consultative Conference and former chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation. 'Just look at how much red tape one has to go through to cross the border. And the Kowloon-Guangzhou through train runs only once an hour.'
If the essence of the Pearl River Delta integration really is about connecting people, trains should be running every few minutes, and constant traffic jams on the roads have to be reduced, he said, because 'they directly reduce our productivity'.
Cedric Chan, a 52-year-old Singaporean expert in information, communication and technology, runs a consultancy and travels to Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Huizhou .
Although he praises the convenience of the Kowloon-Guangzhou rail service in general, he said the schedule of trains - which at present ends at 7.30pm - should be extended past the dinner hour so that businesspeople could return to Hong Kong after meetings on the mainland. And he agrees that something should be done to streamline immigration and customs checks.
'For a foreign passport holder, customs can be quite cumbersome, especially during Saturday morning when there is a large influx of tourists,' Chan said.
Wang Zhilu, a third-year student majoring in design at a Guangzhou university, said the new integration would bring her closer to her best friends, who now live in Zhuhai and Foshan . 'Two of my best friends left Guangzhou after graduating from high school. They say the air is better there, and things are cheaper than in Guangzhou,' Wang said.
She and her friends were also looking forward to a promised reduction in phone rates within the area. 'A few of my primary school friends are in long-distance relationships as they get separated by the universities' different city campuses,' Wang said. 'I know they are spending a crazy amount on cellphone bills every month to keep relationships alive.'
Li Jiandei, 30, owner of a business that has been selling women's handbags online since 2005, expects to cash in under the delta's mega-integration plan. 'I used to travel to Zhongshan for its famous almond cakes,' he said. 'Now more Zhongshan residents will be making frequent trips to Guangzhou to shop for fashionable items, so the integration can definitely help boost domestic demand for products.
'We are making about 3 million yuan (HK$3.6 million) a year now, but we expect business to grow by at least 80 per cent in the next year or two because better transport is shortening distance between cities.'
'There is a famous Chinese saying that goes, 'When the roads become smooth, the fortune comes'. We're hoping to cash in on that big trend.'