No one wants to see the government subsidise private companies without a good public interest reason. So it comes as a surprise that officials are ready not only to allow ferry operators to raise fares next year when contracts for six outlying island routes are up for renewal, but to subsidise passengers for part of any fare rise. That is, effectively, a handout to the operators and island residents - even if passengers have to meet half the increase. This largesse is expected to cost taxpayers - in other words, the rest of us - a whopping HK$120 million a year.
It is, however, not easy to find a way around this, given the rising costs of ferry operations and the few passengers they serve - about 41,000 islanders, in addition to weekend and public holiday visitors. Low-cost public transport services have been a long-time goal of the government. The absence of an economy of scale makes it likely ferry operators will charge high fees unless there is a public subsidy. Indeed, the government has been indirectly subsidising the ferry operators for years to the tune of tens of millions by paying their pier maintenance, cleaning, water and electricity and waiving all vessel-related fees. The new payment should at least be welcome for being more transparent. Without it, affordable fares may not be possible.
The outlying islands, like our country parks, are part of Hong Kong's natural heritage that deserves support. They are there to provide fresh air, uncrowded beaches, fresh seafood and natural exploration. Locals and tourists alike visit them for fun and recreation, so any subsidy also benefits them.
The islands also represent a quieter and more relaxed bygone era that is worth preserving. Higher ferry fares would seriously hurt low-income families on the islands. Perhaps a more targeted subsidy could help such families without incurring a huge cost. But the government is, in effect, paying the islanders and ferry operators to keep both happy. This is distasteful, but difficult to avoid. But any deal should require ferry company's to use cleaner fuel. That way, there will be greater benefits for the whole community.