Hong Kong – Hong Kong’s fabled skyline helped lure about 27 million visitors to the territory last year, but passengers on the luxury liner Queen Mary 2 saw a slightly different vista when the mega-vessel docked in the territory. Instead of soaring skyscrapers and green hills, the vessel’s passengers saw mountains of metal shipping containers and skeleton-like cranes when the 151,400-ton ship docked at the city’s container port at Kwai Chung.
Yet the Queen Mary 2 is not unique in being too big to dock at the territory’s existing Ocean Terminal passenger liner facility in the heart of the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district.
Sean Kelly, chief executive of Modern Terminals, the terminal operator which handled the Queen Mary 2, said the Kwai Chung terminal companies tried to handle the passenger vessels, but it was not always possible because the terminals were busy with container ships.
About six cruise liners a year have to jostle with container carrying ships to tie-up at the Kwai Chung container terminals.
This situation is unlikely to change until 2012 when a spanking new US-410-million-dollar cruise terminal is due to open at the former airport at Kai Tak in the middle of Victoria Harbour.
The government believes the terminal will bolster what up to now has been a fledgling cruise industry by encouraging more vessels to call, boosting tourist spending by about US 300 million dollars by 2020 and creating up to 11,000 jobs.
So far the number of cruise ship passengers is relatively small as a proportion of total tourist numbers.
Tourism commissioner Au King-chi said the total number of cruise ship passengers reached about 2 million last year, including 500,000 that arrived and departed on 50 visiting cruise ships.
The Tourism Commission said tenders to develop the complex will close on March 7. So far only one group led by Malaysia’s Star Cruises has declared its intention to bid for the rights to finance, build and operate the facility.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, which will return to the territory, basing vessels in Hong Kong this year after a six-year absence, is also eyeing the development of the new terminal. Vice-president Craig Milan said: “We are interested in the Kai Tak project. We want to tap into the Chinese market which has a growing tourism market.”
Au said the new terminal will be capable of handling cruise liners up to about 220,000 tons, the largest currently envisaged.
Recognising the growing importance of the cruise ship sector, Au recently launched an advisory committee on the cruise industry that included representatives from top international cruises lines including Italian companies, Costa Crociere and MSC Cruises Asia together with Star Cruises and Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises.
Janet Lai, tourism manager at the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, said the first meeting of the committee on February 15 agreed to set up a working group to look at berthing arrangements before the new terminal becomes operational.
The committee will also look at ways of fostering cooperation with neighbouring coastal provinces in China to develop cruise itineraries as well as working with Chinese authorities to facilitate the entry of cruise vessels into Hong Kong and Chinese ports.
The overall aim is to “enhance the development of Hong Kong into a leading cruise hub in the region for local, regional and international visitors,” the Tourism Commission said.
This comes amid growing interest by people in passenger cruises.
Francis Lai, general manager of Miramar Travel and Express, said there has been double-digit growth in the number of local cruise ship passengers. “If you compare 2006 with 2005, there was 15 per cent growth in the industry, and I am forecasting 20 per cent by the end of 2007,” he said.
Pointing to the shift in appeal, Lai added, “Before, most people who joined cruises were retired and quite elderly. But a younger market group is replacing them, executives and professionals, people around 40 to 50.”
Cruise line companies have responded by developing itineraries from Hong Kong to a raft of regional destinations such as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China.
Some of these cities, notably Singapore, Shanghai and Xiamen on China’s east coast, have responded by developing their own new cruise terminals to cater to this increase in demand.