Hong Kong has the vision for north Lantau as a gateway to the Pearl River Delta, but does it have the will to turn it into reality?

Mike Rowse says the development of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, third runway and the tunnel linking Tuen Mun to the airport can make the northern coast of Lantau the new epicentre of Hong Kong, if we move fast

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 February, 2016, 9:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 February, 2016, 9:01am

The first US President Bush (George senior, the intelligent one) used to confess that he had trouble with what he called “the vision thing”. That was a reference to his inability to articulate a vision for his presidency. It was possibly this failing that contributed to his defeat in the 1992 election at the hands of the great communicator Bill Clinton.

No such inadequacy can be laid at the door of the Lantau Development Advisory Committee, which recently published a report setting out its vision for the future of Hong Kong’s largest island. In simple terms, the committee sees the great majority of Lantau – much of it precious country park – being left largely for recreation and nature. There are a few proposed developments – a resort, a spa and improved access so visitors and locals can better enjoy what is there. No doubt, the various pressure groups will ensure the south and west of the island remain essentially unspoiled.

But it is the committee’s ideas about development along the northern coast – a great arc from western Tung Chung and the airport along to the Tsing Ma bridge and sweeping down to Penny’s Bay and Hong Kong Disneyland – that really capture the imagination. The report revolves around a single statement which looks so obvious when expounded that everyone will wonder why it seems new: with the completion of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, north Lantau will no longer be the “western end of Hong Kong” but, rather, an important gateway to the whole of the Pearl River Delta.

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It used to be a common misconception among residents of Hong Kong Island that they were at the centre of everything. They saw Kowloon as a foreign country, and the New Territories including the outlying islands were beyond the pale.

We have known for some time that the majority of the population lives in the New Territories and only a minority in the established urban areas. Completion of the Zhuhai bridge link, development of the third runway and the new tunnel linking Tuen Mun to Chek Lap Kok, is going to blow away any last vestiges of the old mindset. The pendulum of business activity is going to swing inevitably to the west. As the report correctly envisages, the airport island and nearby areas have a great opportunity to become a robust commercial area, a base for logistics and much more. To boost the number of big-spending business visitors, we can press ahead with completion of AsiaWorld-Expo and other exhibition/convention facilities either on the airport island itself or the new one reclaimed for the bridge landing. There will be a natural cluster to attract visitors from all over Guangdong. We should also be speaking urgently to Disney to bring forward plans for a second theme park adjacent to the present one. The land for both these projects is already available and accessible.

We know many of our visitors are coming to shop, so there is scope for major retail development, for basic necessities. Many visitors will want to stay and eat, so there will be demand for hotels and dining facilities. To an extent, growth of this new business area, funded by private sector investment, can help relieve pressure on downtown facilities.

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So we have the vision. What about execution? This is an area where Hong Kong has not shone in recent times, for a whole host of reasons. It is long past time to change the script. Let’s have a short, sharp, inclusive consultation phase, and then some dynamism in the implementation. The third runway, the bridge and the tunnel give us every incentive to start building for our future now so that, for once, we get ahead of the curve instead of always playing catch-up.

That is what our competitors are doing. Just look south to Singapore, or north to Shanghai, or west to Hengqin. Come on Hong Kong, it’s time we upped our game.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. From 2003-08, he was chairman of the board of AsiaWorld-Expo. In 2015, he was appointed as a consultant to the private-sector partner in that project. mike@rowse.com.hk