July 12, 2006

HK’s Star Ferry surrenders to urbanization

By Susan Fenton

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The fabled green and white Star ferry
service is one of few relics from Hong Kong's past to have
survived the territory's modernization.

But soon, the ferries will leave their downtown terminal
and move to new premises on Hong Kong island, making way for
land reclamation and construction of a road bypass.

Swish new terminals on either side of Victoria Harbor with
shopping and dining facilities will make the ferries a bigger
tourist attraction, says the government.

Residents are, however, up in arms and say the main ferry
service between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the mainland
will no longer be a convenient form of public transport.

"I won't take the ferry any more, it'll be too far. I'll
have to take the MTR (underground railway) and that takes a lot
longer," said Leo Lam, an accountant who now takes the
nine-minute journey daily to work in Kowloon.

The ferries, established by a prominent Parsee businessman
in the 1880s, rate as one of the territory's biggest tourist
attractions, offering visitors the best view of one of the
world's most spectacular harbors.

But locals make up 70 percent of the 75,000 people who
travel each day on the ferries, last year voted the city's most
reliable form of public transport.

At rush hour, office workers stream off the boats, elbowing
past leisurely tourists, on their way to work in the Central
business district on Hong Kong Island.

Once the terminal moves 300 meters away however they face a
15-minute walk to work or connecting transport -- a move that
the Star Ferry Company estimates will cut passenger numbers by
13 percent.

On the Kowloon side, the government plans to relocate a bus
terminus away from the ferry terminal and build landscaped
gardens. That may attract more tourists but would cut passenger
numbers by another 20 percent or so, according to Star Ferry

"On the Hong Kong side we'd like to stay where we are, the
new terminal is out of the Central business district," said
Frankie Yick, managing director of the Star Ferry Company.
"Hong Kong people are always in a rush, they want to get to
places quickly."


Land reclamation has seen Victoria Harbor shrink in recent
years and many people say it is spoiling the city's natural
beauty and ruining its biggest natural asset, the Harbor
itself. They lament the ferries' departure from their downtown
location as the end of an era.

"It's a dilemma for Hong Kong," said Edwin Chu, an
investment consultant, who also plans to switch to alternative
transport when the ferry moves. "We'll miss the ferry but we
also need to ease traffic congestion in Central."

Established by businessman Dorabjee Nowrojee to transport
his workers, the ferry service has weathered Hong Kong's often
turbulent history, including a general strike in the British
colony in 1925 when only the Royal Navy kept the ferries

When Japan invaded the colony in 1941, locals crammed on to
the ferries amid shelling in the Harbor to try to escape. The
service was suspended for 44 months during the occupation.

Today, at HK$1.70 (22 U.S. cents) a ride on the lower deck,
the cross-Harbor trip is a rare bargain in one of the world's
most expensive cities -- partly because attempts to raise fares
are routinely met with protests.

During widespread social unrest in the territory in 1966, a
plan to raise the fare by 5 cents sparked four days of riots.

The ferry terminal on Hong Kong Island, once a waterfront
landmark, is now dwarfed by skyscrapers and looks run down.
Some ferries are 50 years old but that has not dimmed their

One Dutchman was so impressed by a ride on one that he
opened a Star Ferry cafe in Amsterdam last year modeled on a
replica green and white ferry.

As tourism has become an increasingly important contributor
to the local economy, accounting for 6-8 percent of gross
domestic product, the government is keen to build the ferries
up as a tourist attraction.

The new terminals will house replicas of the clock towers
at the existing terminals as well as floors of shopping and
dining facilities, with a rooftop beer garden on the Kowloon
side and a Star Ferry exhibition on the island side.

Revenue from those facilities will help subsidize the
ferries. But Yick said fares might have to rise if passenger
numbers drop too much.

One thing that won't change are the ferries themselves.

"No one would want that," said Yick. "They are an icon."