Hong Kong’s Star Ferry in need of another cash route
- City’s iconic transport system faces an uncertain future as impact of Covid-19 prompts it to seek substantial fare increases, but other options must be considered
The Star Ferry has sailed between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon for 124 years, through world wars and enemy occupation, economic depression, recession, typhoons and competition from the MTR and cross-harbour tunnels. Until Covid-19, it seemed nothing could knock it off course.
As the city grew, a harbour crossing service became an iconic sightseeing experience for locals and visitors alike.
But its resilience and colourful history did not prepare it for the crushing social and commercial impact of pandemic controls. Its lifeblood – paying passengers – has dried up.
It has lost nearly half its patronage since 2018. It has been running at a loss, including HK$37 million (US$4.7 million) last year, accumulating debt that now exceeds total assets.
As a Hong Kong brand comparable with The Peak, the Star Ferry desperately needs the city to fully reopen. Even then, the timing and momentum of the return of visitors remains uncertain.
But more than that, it badly needs more revenue. A substantial fare increase amid a faltering economy is hard to justify.
But the owner of the Star Ferry, which earlier warned that its survival was uncertain, has proposed doubling its fares. It also wants to end free trips for the elderly and apply to join the government’s HK$2 public transport scheme for the disabled and elderly; or seniors may pay HK$5 a trip.
The Transport and Logistics Bureau has submitted the proposed fare increases to the legislature where, understandably, they have met a mixed reception, including concerns they may hurt rather than boost business. The bureau is pessimistic about patronage returning to pre-Covid levels, while competition from other transport options and costs both increase.
Approval of just half the amount sought would be a significant increase at this time. One question is whether the Star Ferry should be treated as a slice of living heritage that contrasts with the new West Kowloon arts hub, and is therefore worth saving.
Just when the city is proclaiming “Hong Kong is back”, does it really want to be seen downsizing its list of icons? Apart from fare increases in a problematic environment, the government could consider other options to make the Star Ferry more viable, such as one lawmaker’s suggestion of improving its piers to enhance rental income.