The Kai Tak Cruise Terminal is yielding only meagre economic benefits a year after opening. But business leaders remain optimistic that the HK$8.2 billion investment will pay off, with the terminal helping drive the transformation of East Kowloon into a second central business district in years to come.
Just 118,401 passengers arrived at the terminal last year out of a total of 54.2 million visits to the city.
The small passenger flow meant it was a year of "discovery" rather than tangible benefits for local businesses, said Maureen Fung Sau-yim, general manager of Sun Hung Kai Properties' leasing department.
For example, SHKP's APM mall in Kwun Tong put on shuttle buses from the terminal and welcomed 5,000 passengers. While they were well-dressed and curious about local culture, the cruise passengers tended to spend about HK$2,000 to HK$3,000 per head -10 or 20 per cent less than the typical mainland visitor to the mall.
"Many don't have [Hong Kong] money on them," Fung said. "They like to buy souvenirs and clothes, but have more demand for catering."
Now the mall offers a currency exchange and souvenir vending machine.
Back at the terminal, shops are being fitted out on the second floor and Federal Restaurant Group said its Federal Cruise Banquet Centre would be ready to open next month. There will be 80 tables capable of seating a total of 1,000 diners. "We will start accepting bookings this month," a spokeswoman said.
Travel Industry Council chairman Michael Wu Siu-ieng believes it will take three or four years for more cruise operators to start using Kai Tak.
He believes the growth of the cruise industry in Asia will depend on the economic outlook in Europe and the United States; only if economies there remain weak will operators deploy ships to a new market.
Wu and Fung agree the terminal will play an essential role in the government's ambitions for Kowloon East. Six harbourside sites at Kai Tak will be released to the market from the end of next year for hotel development.