Before the pandemic, when tourists flocked to Hong Kong, I had a tip for visiting friends and relatives. Wait until dusk on your first day and take a trip across the harbour on the Star Ferry. It is one of the best things to do.
A travel guide I read before first arriving in the city in 1994 offered the same advice. The 10-minute trip may not be the most comfortable and the sea air is not the cleanest. But the sights and sounds are memorable, especially the view of Hong Kong’s spectacular skyline.
Sadly, after 124 years, the Star Ferry Company faces a financial crisis and concerns about its future. The ferry is not just a tourist attraction. It provides cheap and convenient cross-harbour transport for locals, too. That might be about to change.
The government is considering a request by the company for a doubling of its fares. This follows a 16.5 per cent increase last year. Officials accept the need for a rise, but 100 per cent is “way too much”, one told the Legislative Council last week.
Star ferries have seen a dramatic drop in passengers during the pandemic. The tourists the company relies on have stayed away amid tight Covid-19 restrictions. In the past, commuters would cram into the boats. But locals now have other ways to cross the harbour.
There were 9.57 million Star Ferry passengers last year, a 46 per cent drop from 2019. This is worrying. Before the pandemic, fares contributed more than half the company’s revenue. The plunge in patrons has left it heavily in debt. The company made a HK$37 million (US$4.74 million) loss last year and owes banks more than HK$72 million. The call for a doubling of its fares is not just an attempt to balance the books. It is a cry for help.
The government is understandably sensitive about a steep rise in the ferry’s fares. A proposed increase in fares famously sparked riots in 1966.
This time, the concern is that Hong Kong is facing a cost of living crisis. Bus companies have applied for fare increases of up to 20 per cent. Urban taxi operators want the flag fall fare raised a hefty HK$6. Tram fares have already risen more than 15 per cent this year.
One of Hong Kong’s assets is the availability of cheap and reliable transport. It is essential in a city where only a small minority drive cars.
Even if Star Ferry’s plan was approved, the cost of an upper deck weekday adult ticket would be HK$6.4. This is still excellent value compared to similar services overseas and cheaper than crossing the harbour on the mass transit railway.
But the ferry’s importance goes beyond travel. The little boats are an enduring slice of Hong Kong history, a vital part of the community’s collective memory. A way must be found to ensure they continue to sail.
There is an urgent need for investment and the finding of new sources of revenue. The government aided Cathay Pacific at its time of need. But help could also come from the private sector.
The Star Ferry should be placed at the heart of a revived harbour. A vibrant, environmentally friendly service with revitalised piers and a wider range of services would give it a new lease of life. This would all need to be done while respecting the company’s history.
Perhaps Queen’s Pier would fit into such a plan. The iconic colonial-era pier was dismantled in 2007, sparking protests. It used to sit near the Star Ferry piers in Central. The government promised the pier would be restored on the Central harbourfront by 2013. We are still waiting.
Last month, Lonely Planet published a guide to the top 10 things to do in Hong Kong. A trip on the Star Ferry was top of the list. If the city ever fully reopens and tourists return, the ferry will be a star attraction. It needs to be thrown a lifeline.