The new cruise terminal is steadily taking shape at the end of the old Kai Tak airport runway. The cruise industry is a major international growth area and the coming years – thanks largely to the mainland’s booming leisure market – will see fleets of enormous gin palaces arriving at and departing from the new terminal.
Gambling, of course, is a major attraction, particularly for Chinese passengers. The cruise ships that operate out of Hong Kong to Southeast Asia all have on-board casinos, and are known to be quiet and relaxing for passengers with no interest in “one-armed bandits”, roulette wheels and the like.
Swimming pools, gyms and other recreational facilities are mostly deserted as soon as the international territorial limit is reached, and remain that way until the ship approaches the next port.
But how much will the Hong Kong economy benefit from the increased presence of cruise liners in Kowloon Bay? If the experience of the past is any guide, broader economic spin-offs will be limited.
Cruises are the ultimate expression of squeezing the last possible cent of profit from a holiday arrangement. The ships have a captive market; between ports there is no escape. Food is catered to the most precisely pre-measured and generally unexacting standards. Entertainment is prepackaged and mostly pitched at the lowest common denominator.
Staff costs are minimal; cruise lines all over the world employ poorly paid crews. Corporate registration in shipping havens such as Panama and Liberia help ensure that safety and regulatory standards are kept to a minimum.
In addition, the ambiguous jurisdictional status these “flags of convenience” allow can be neatly invoked whenever a maritime disaster occurs.
In the late 19th century, global cruises became popular among the wealthy and they stopped off at various Far Eastern ports. Some were written up in popular – but now largely forgotten – travel accounts, which in turn helped encourage the thought of exotic travel among the newly rich.
Luxurious round-the-world cruises became popular in the 1920s. The Roaring Twenties were the decade of United States economic ascendancy, and during this period many American tourists stopped off in Hong Kong for a few days as part of a broader Asian jaunt. The itinerary they followed was much the same as those of today’s cruise ship passengers.
A few days in a hotel on shore, some shopping and a drive around the New Territories was about the limit.
Back then most global cruises also stopped off in Shanghai, where the nightlife was considered much more exciting than that of the British colony, and the shopping was cheaper and more diverse. Hong Kong, however, had the edge over Shanghai in terms of outstanding natural scenery – and still does.
Dedicated cruise ships started to appear more often in the 60s, as the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) moved its England-Far East routes from regular passenger services to a dedicated tourist market.
Gradually, old vessels such as the Canton and the Chusan, which had been mainstays of the Far Eastern run for many years, were scrapped and new vessels such as the Oriana and the Oronsay came into service.
Regular visitors to Victoria Harbour in the following decades, these liners were used throughout the 80s on the contractually guaranteed voyage “home” for retiring expatriate civil servants.