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Fri, Jul 21, 2006 - Page 10 News List

Plans for Hong Kong cruise hub spark row

FRAGRANT HARBOR?The Hong Kong government wants to turn the old airport site into a cruise terminal but faces fierce opposition from residents and environment groups

AFP , HONG KONG

Local residents look at the ``Costa Allegra'' cruise liner berthed in Hong Kong prior to its maiden voyage to Mumbai, India, on May 29.

PHOTO: AFP

Plans to turn Hong Kong's famous harbor into an Asian cruise hub have stoked a row with conservationists who fear the project could kill off the city's historical maritime heritage.

Two major international cruise companies are eyeing the huge potential of the southern Chinese territory to the excitement of tourist officials here, but controversy has erupted over where to build a state-of-the-art terminal.

Conservationists contend that far from promoting economic activity on the harbor, a government proposal to build the terminal at the old harborside airport site will choke traditional seafaring industries.

Further, they argue, it will contribute to the ongoing decline of the harbor city's once great natural icon that has repeatedly been reduced in size, prestige and aesthetic value by generations of reclamation.

"If you take away the ship shops, the repair yards, the small piers and other harbor-land interface industries you will effectively kill off any economic activity on the harbor -- it will become a dead harbor," said Paul Zimmerman, chairman of Designing Hong Kong Harbor, a conservationist group.

"This city was historically built on the maritime trade -- the name 'Hong Kong' is even derived from the harbor itself," he said. "Now the government wants to clear all that away."

But the arrival of Costa Crociere and expressions of interest by Royal Caribbean International to set up shop in the city -- whose name means "fragrant harbor" in the Cantonese language -- suggest the row is set to deepen.

Italian shipping line Costa -- a subsidiary of Carnival, the world's largest cruise company -- celebrated the opening of its new Asian office with a glitzy party in May during a port call by showpiece vessel the Costa Allegra.

Worldwide cruise passenger totals are forecast to tip 30 million by 2020 from 15 million this year, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Commission.

Hong Kong is set to play a big part in that growth, said Costa Crociere president Giovanni Onotaro.

"Hong Kong, as one of China's top tourist destinations ... will represent an important regional cruise hub," Onotaro said.

The firm plans to run regular cruises out of Hong Kong with links to Chinese ports.

US-based Caribbean, meanwhile, has publicly stated that it sees Hong Kong playing a big part its future expansion plans.

The Hong Kong government is keen to rebuild the cruise market in a city whose busy harbor once bustled with the ebb and flow of passenger ships bound for all corners of the globe.

However, cut-price air travel has seen the industry slow to a trickle in the last couple of decades.

As a result, the city has no top-class terminal that can adequately handle modern vessels.

Smaller cruisers dock at the Ocean Terminal in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist area, but larger ships have to dock in the container terminal.

Such ignominy befell Cunard's famous Queen Elizabeth II when it visited last year, much to the chagrin of its well-heeled passengers, who were forced to disembark among industrial cranes and stacks of cargo pallets.

To fill the gap, the government has proposed building a terminal at the site of the former Kai Tak airport, a huge swathe of city-center land that has lain dormant since the runways were closed in 1998 and operations switched to the new out-of-town Chek Lap Kok airport.

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