The Economic Development and Labour Bureau this week proposed dangling a $61 million carrot in front of the maritime trade industry in a bid to lure more carriers back to Hong Kong's port and rekindle its fading fortunes. The bureau on Tuesday sought approval from the Legislative Council to lower a raft of port-related levies ranging from anchorage and licence fees to light and port facility dues - that will cost it $61 million in forgone revenues - in a move likely to be ratified by members in November. The proposal is heartening in that it appears to be a sign the government is not prepared to play the part of Hong Kong's Nero, fiddling while the port's contribution to our economy fades like the embers of Rome's dying fire. On the surface, the measures appear to promise the most long-term benefits to Hong Kong's river trade, which is being aggressively targeted by south China ports such as Nansha and Chiwan. Owners of the loss-making $6.5 billion River Trade Terminal, and operators at the main terminals, will undoubtedly embrace the offer to slash by up to 17 per cent the entry permit costs for barge operators, with savings scaled to the frequency of visits. The bureau also wants to boost Hong Kong's ship registry and the volume of ocean-going cargo moving through the port. But initiatives on that front have limited potential. More responsible ship management at the port may also be promoted by a proposal to reduce by up to 50 per cent tonnage fees for locally registered ships, provided they are not detained for operational infractions and their owners use local arbitration services. Tim Huxley, a broker for Clarkson's and vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Ship Owners Association, was quick to tell Lloyd's List this week the proposals 'offer no material benefit to Hong Kong's register'. But the bureau estimates the aggregate annual revenue loss from the cutbacks will be recovered by generating new container volumes, while a Master Plan 2020 prepared by consultants GHK estimated that each tonne of direct containerised cargo moving through the port 'generates an economic benefit' of $193, and $135 for trans-shipment cargo. It is, however, unlikely the initiatives will boost cargo throughput or port revenues in a meaningful way. During consultations ahead of this week's final announcement, some respondents warned the proposals 'would not be enough to redress the cost differentials between [Hong Kong] and its neighbouring ports'. Even after the concessions, it will still be about $2,340 cheaper per box for a cargo owner to ship to Los Angeles from a port in Shenzhen than from Hong Kong, due to higher local trucking and terminal handling charges (THC). And that is the key. It is the cargo owner - not the vessel owner or operator - who dictates which port their goods move through. So the amount of new cargo generated by the fee cuts will be proportionate to the savings the carriers pass on to their customers, and if the decade-long furore over the THC is any indication of how willing carriers are to pass savings on to their customers, precious little, if any, of the cost cuts will trickle down to sway the decision-makers. The proposals will also do little to attract the comparatively lucrative deep-sea trade, which represents more than 70 per cent of Hong Kong's throughput. According to one carrier executive, the incentives for this sector - a 5 per cent reduction in port facility and light dues and up to a third off anchorage fees - may have spin-off benefits for Hong Kong's service industries, but they are unlikely to lure more ships to the terminals. There may, however, be indirect benefits from the latest proposals: hotels, airlines and taxi drivers may gain from more crew changes in Hong Kong waters, for instance. But it is hard to escape the fact that government has again taken the path of least resistance - and subsequently of least reward - in its urgency to be seen to be doing something to reverse Hong Kong's fate. Unlike tackling the US$100 THC differential or the licensing cartel for cross-border trucking, the new proposals can be achieved without having to confront the power brokers in the private sector or the political heavyweights across the border. If, as expected, Legco approves these initiatives, attention may be temporarily diverted from the government's failure to address the comparatively high trucking costs and THCs. But with the cost gap vis-a-vis ports in Shenzhen as wide as ever, the public won't be distracted for long.