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Just before midnight on July 5 1998, I was the final passenger to disembark from the last aircraft to land at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International airport, scooping up the last souvenir bottle of champagne from a welcoming committee gathered on the apron.
Like countless previous flights, ours had swooped in seemingly a hand’s breadth above the skyscrapers of Kowloon City, made a 47-degree turn to starboard, a mere 650ft above the ground, and come to a screeching halt on the single two-mile runway that jutted out into Victoria Harbour. Akin to combining Quidditch with a blindfold bungee jump, and – assuming you knew this sort of landing was normal – it was glorious fun.
An hour later the last flight took off for the city’s new international hub, the Norman Foster-designed Chek Lap Kok on Lantau, to the west of Hong Kong Island. Kai Tak shut down and the bureaucrats and tycoons fell to dickering over the most profitable use for a prime 1¼‑square-mile site in a city famously short of building space.
Some 15 years, and more than HK$8 billion (£666 million) later, Kai Tak is once more up and running – this time as Hong Kong’s new cruise terminal, also designed by Baron Foster of Thames Bank. The first liner docked on June 12, the 138,000-ton, 15-deck, Mariner of the Seas, loaded with 3,000 passengers who had boarded in Singapore for an 11-night cruise bound for Shanghai.
Hong Kong’s new cruise terminal
I wasn’t quite the first passenger to board, but I was perhaps the only one to stand at the stern and gape at Kai Tak’s transmogrification. The new terminal, which calls to mind an open-mouthed cigar tube topped with a roof garden, sports five gangways and in time will be able to handle the largest liners in the world.
A designer-label shopping mall and other parts of the terminal are some way from being finished – Hong Kong’s trademark bamboo scaffolding is still much in evidence, as are trestle tables and signage affixed by sticky tape – while the rest of the former airport is still a construction site due to be occupied by a mixture of hotels, housing, a park and a sports stadium.
The arrival of Mariner of the Seas marked the terminal’s soft opening. “The terminal is due to open to the public in October when the next liner comes into port,” said Beatrice Lee, senior public relations executive at the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB). “A second berth should be finished in July 2014, while dredging will continue until the following year.”
For Hong Kong the new terminal is not so much just another infrastructure project as a determined attempt to muscle in on a growing and lucrative cruise market in Asia in the face of competition from other regional cruise hubs such as Singapore and Shanghai. As China’s middle and upper classes continue to expand, the demand for travel, especially luxury travel, is expected to increase further, according to HKTB’s executive director, Anthony Lau. “Many Chinese travellers will likely take to the seas, given the novelty experience of cruise holidays.”
Planes used to fly in over Kowloon
Adding to the susurrus of gleeful hand-rubbing are the cruise operators, who are swiftly adapting their ships and voyage plans to appeal to a freshly sliced market segment. Kai Tak is named after the entrepreneurs Ho Kai and Au Tak who started to reclaim the land in 1922 but ran out of money and rented part of the site to an American, “Crazy” Harry Abbott, who opened an aviation school in 1924. It seems the story has come full circle.
“We spent two years planning Mariner of the Seas’ arrival in Hong Kong to coincide with the opening of the new terminal, and we spent $10 million [£6.46 million] upgrading the shops and the casino on board,” said Zinan Liu, regional vice-president for Miami-based Royal Caribbean International, which took a 20 per cent stake in the consortium behind the terminal.
“The mainland Chinese market is in its infancy and will soon catch on to cruising. This is one of the reasons we are redeploying Mariner of the Seas and her sister ship, Voyager of the Seas, to Hong Kong.”
The docking of Voyager of the Seas in October will be followed by that of Diamond Princess and, in December, of Celebrity Millennium. Hong Kong’s original terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui will continue to serve smaller cruise ships.
Hong Kong is the most dramatic port I have ever sailed into or out of; compensation for the south China coast’s otherwise slightly unexciting, and often air-polluted, landscape – there are no chic, Mediterranean-style ports and fishing villages, or palm-fringed Caribbean shores in this part of the world. Wherever their ship moors, cruise passengers sailing into or out of Hong Kong can enjoy the thrill of taking centre stage in what is to all intents and purposes an aqua amphitheatre. Skyscrapers festoon the harbour’s shores, the skyline to the north is dominated by Lion Rock and ringed by a series of other towering granite peaks, the water teems with lighters, junks, packet boats, cargo ships and yachts, while the metropolis fairly scintillates all around.
View over ships in Hong Kong Island
While Kai Tak is only semi-fledged, its opening – complete with the requisite lion dancing and drumming – was greeted with enthusiasm across the city, tempered with some caustic comment as scores of passengers queued for taxis that took a long time to find their way to a venue that, until very recently, was terra incognita.