The creation of a state-of-the-art cruise terminal at the former Kai Tak airport has moved a step closer to putting East Kowloon firmly on the world tourism map. Tenders for the massive project closed on March7, drawing bids from two high-profile consortiums put together by two of Hong Kong's biggest property developers - Cheung Kong (Holdings) and Sun Hung Kai Properties (SHKP). The tenders have since undergone scrutiny and assessment by government departments and agencies involved with the project. The result is expected to be announced shortly. The partnership associated with SHKP comprises Star Cruises, VXL Capital and Nan Fung Development and was formed in January. Cheung Kong's wholly owned subsidiary Asia Pacific International Enterprises, teamed up with Canadian ports operator Ceres Terminals to tender for the project. The successful tender will design and build the new cruise terminal, and have the first berth operational in February 2012. It must also operate, manage and maintain it for 50 years. As a key infrastructure project in the development of Kowloon East, the new cruise terminal will turn Hong Kong into a major hub in the growing cruise market across Asia-Pacific. According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, total cruise visitor throughput last year was more than 620,000, a remarkable increase of 52 per cent over the 2006 total. The number of visits by international cruise liners this year is expected to increase by 20 per cent. The local cruise market got a boost in 1994 when Star Cruises added Hong Kong to its ports of call, launching pleasure cruises to such regional destinations as Hainan Island, Vietnam, Borneo, Singapore and Thailand. Until then, most seaborne passenger traffic to and from Hong Kong was to mainland ports such as Shantou, Xiamen, Fuzhou and Shanghai in the north, and (apart from Macau) to Nanhai, Zhongshan, Jiangmen and other nearby destinations. Cruise liners home-porting Hong Kong in recent years include the SuperStar Aquarius (June 2007-March 2008), SuperStar Libra (November 2007-March 2008), SuperStar Virgo (April-October 2008), Costa Allegra (November 2006) and Rhapsody of the Seas (February-April 2008). Several of the world's biggest and most renowned cruise liners - including the Queen Mary II, the Queen Victoria (the Cunard Line's latest super-liner) and the Sapphire Princess - have made stopovers in Hong Kong over the past two years. These create lucrative knock-on benefits to Hong Kong's economy. With the development of the new cruise terminal and appropriate marketing strategies, market studies indicate that the economic benefits might reach between HK$1.4billion and HK$2.2billion a year by 2020. The terminal may also provide 6,900 to 10,900 employment opportunities by that year. Spin-off job opportunities are also likely to emerge in the related fields of retail, food and beverage, hotels, plus cruise consultancies and tourist guides. However, because the first berth at Kai Tak will only be ready in four years there is concern among the travel trade about saturation of existing facilities - specifically the two berths now available at Ocean Terminal for visiting cruise liners. Non-executive chairman and senior adviser of Kuoni Travel (China) Richard Willis has been pointing to the shortcomings of Hong Kong ports and urging that preparations be made to accommodate the new super-liners. 'Ocean Terminal can only accommodate cruise liners with a displacement of 50,000 tonnes. New megaships over 50,000 tonnes such as the Sapphire Princess and Cunard's Queen Mary II have to berth at Kwai Chung Container Port, which is not in itself a problem - provided a berth is [available],' Mr Willis said. 'But Kwai Chung gives priority to container ships and often the container operators cannot confirm berths until very late. So the problem with Kwai Chung is to have a berth available exactly when it is required by one of the super-liners, not only for offloading passengers but also for taking them back on board again - plus others who are embarking from Hong Kong.' According to government information, there are streamlined procedures to provide flexibility for container terminal operators handling applications for temporary waivers of the land lease conditions to facilitate berthing of cruise ships at the container port. This also applies to the China Merchant Godown Wharf and Transportation at Kennedy Town as from January this year. But Mr Willis said: 'There are not too many options here for the government, the destination management companies and the port agents execpt to lobby container operators to accept berthing requests for the megaships until 2012. The other option is for these giant liners to anchor in 'mid stream' - in the harbour area. But this is not ideal given the complexity of the logistics involved, especially if there is a turnaround operation whereby disembarking passengers must be taken off with their luggage, while joining passengers and their luggage must be taken out to the ship to embark.' Mr Willis suggested as a business or operation model, Hong Kong should adopt the operations methods used at major cruise hubs around the world such as Miami, and improve on them. 'As for the design of the new terminal, I totally agree with the government's criteria that it has to be an icon for Hong Kong. I would like to see a nautical or marine-related theme perhaps including a maritime museum at the terminal,' he said.