A high-powered delegation of Hong Kong shipping, logistics and port executives will start a visit to South Korea today to promote the city as an international maritime centre. The delegation is led by Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng and includes Marine Department director Roger Tupper and Miriam Lau Kin-yee, who represents the transport sector in the Legislative Council. The trip will include meetings with Korean shipping and port executives in Seoul and Pusan. But the aim of the visit has been called into question, given that Hong Kong's maritime sector already has strong ties with South Korean shipping firms and shipbuilders. Members of the delegation, who have been drawn from the Maritime Industry Council and the Port Development Council, will visit four of the country's largest shipping companies - STX Pan Ocean, Hyundai Merchant Marine, Hanjin Shipping, and SK Shipping. All except SK Shipping have vessels on Hong Kong's ship register. STX Pan Ocean also has a ship and cargo chartering office in Hong Kong. Ship brokers and law firms based in Hong Kong also act on behalf of shipowners that have ordered ships at Korean shipyards. Orient Overseas Container Line recently splashed out US$544 million to order four 13,000 20-foot equivalent unit (teu) container ships from Samsung Heavy Industries to take its total order at Samsung for these ultra large box ships to 10, together worth almost US$1.4 billion. 'South Korean shipping companies are already well aware of the benefits of flagging ships in Hong Kong,' one shipping company executive said. He said Hong Kong had about the fifth-largest ship registry in the world, with more than 1,800 vessels totalling 60.4 million gross tonnes. 'Similarly, the territory's maritime professionals, including brokers, financiers and legal representatives are also aware of the opportunities available in South Korea,' the source said. 'A delegation headed by the secretary for transport and housing is a good public relations exercise, allowing delegates to make courtesy calls and press the flesh. But it's difficult to see what business is going to be transacted or what new business opportunities will come out of the visit.' The trip comes amid moves to strengthen Hong Kong's position as a maritime hub, with a further meeting of the Hong Kong Maritime Forum and talks to launch a privately backed maritime week next year. Forum convenor So Ping-chi said the group would seek to expand membership beyond the core 24 organisations that created the body at an inaugural meeting at the end of last year. He said there were five staff groups within the Marine Department alone that could become members. The aim was to help unite Hong Kong's existing disparate shipping and maritime groups to give input into three main task forces the forum planned to set up later this year. One task force would assess ways to promote the industry, while the others would focus on staff and training needs and advise government on the formulation of maritime-related policies. 'I'm happy with the progress,' So said. 'It takes a bit of time to get to know each other. It takes time to build up understanding among the members, to know what others are doing.' He added that a manpower study should start by September. It would assess whether the perceived shortage of shipping professionals in Hong Kong really existed and what steps should be taken, including the possible launch of new university and vocational training courses, to address the issue. The Marine Department already employs three seamen from the mainland because of problems recruiting local experts. Separately, a five-day event featuring maritime and shipping-related conferences, forums, and an exhibition is being planned to showcase expertise in Hong Kong and the region next year. Ferdi Stolzenberg, head of MTI Network in Hong Kong, is planning to launch Shipping Hong Kong from February 27 next year with the aim of moving the sector away from traditional industry events. Initial meetings, with Tupper from the Marine Department and the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, have been held to build support for the venture.