Hong Kong’s Star Ferry on the brink of closure? No way, says company
- Sharp fall in passengers, revenue sparked concerns that Victoria Harbour might lose iconic ferries
- Company pledges to press on as ferries have ‘dual role’ as transport option and top tourist draw
Wong Kam-fai remembers riding the Star Ferry as a child, and his excitement years later, when he landed a job on the crew of the familiar vessels plying Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour.
“I was jumping for joy,” he said.
Now 61, he has stayed for almost 18 years, operating the gangway and helping to moor the vessel, among other duties.
He recalled the ferries being packed with commuting Hongkongers and tourists before things changed with the social unrest in 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic which followed.
“Now the number of passengers is so small, the ferry is not full even during the morning and evening rush hour,” he said.
The Star Ferry Company revealed in March this year that the sharp decline in passengers and revenue since June 2019 had led to accumulated losses exceeding HK$70 million (US$8.91 million), and it had become a struggle to pay its staff.
The news sparked concern that the ferries were on the brink of ceasing operations after 124 years, but the company told the Post it had no plans to close down.
A spokesman said it was currently seeking a fare review and considering the potential of developing its three piers as new attractions for locals and visitors.
He said the company remained positive about its longer-term outlook, as well as Star Ferry’s position as not only a public transport option but also a top draw for visitors from around the world.
He added that the company was open about its financial distress to raise awareness of its plight, and was “deeply touched” by the community’s response.
The fan club of Mirror boy band member Anson Lo Hon-ting and Dah Sing Bank separately sponsored free-ride days, and some Hongkongers had even begun taking the ferries more often, he said.
Former city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in June said the government was in discussions with the company about fare adjustments and ways to increase non-fare revenues.
The Transport and Logistics Bureau said the company was allowed to manage and sublet its premises to raise more revenue, and had been encouraged to improve facilities to attract more visitors.
“We are actively processing the fare increase application of Star Ferry and will consult the Legislative Council panel on transport in due course,” the bureau added.
It said the government had already introduced several subsidies and measures to support two of the city’s oldest forms of public transport, the ferries and trams.
The Star Ferry currently operates two routes, from Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui and from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui, with fares of up to HK$3.20 on weekdays and HK$4.20 on weekends and public holidays.
Its importance to commuters had waned with the introduction of other ferry services and the opening of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, said John Carroll, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).
But he said he felt the ferry service was an important part of Hong Kong life, and an icon for tourists, along with junks and rickshaws.
“It has become something people want to take when crossing the harbour rather than that they have to take it,” Carroll said.
Agreeing, Dr Lee Ho-yin, former associate professor of heritage conservation at HKU, said that like the trams, the ferries could be considered a form of transport heritage.
This was because the Star Ferry figured so strongly in the collective memory of Hongkongers and visitors alike, he said.
Lee said he believed the ferries were worth conserving as a symbol of the city, noting that some European cities had revived electric trams to boost their appeal to visitors.
“A good idea to conserve the Star Ferry in a more sustainable way is to continue its current use as a means of transport, but to do so alongside other measures under a policy umbrella of environmental protection,” he said.
Retired civil servant Bird Chow, 58, said he rode the ferry whenever he had the time, mostly to enjoy views of the city skyline in the evening.
“I took the ferry as I grew up, from primary school to secondary school, and when I started working,” he said. “There is a sense of nostalgia there.”