Mar 22, 2012|
The issue of mainland-Hong Kong integration has become a hot-button topic in the minds of many Hongkongers. Last month, the public was shocked and outraged to learn about the cross-boundary private cars quota trial scheme, which will allow mainland cars onto our congested roads. While the community argues over the scheme, a fresh wave of controversy is set to surface—Hong Kong and Guangdong authorities are now discussing plans to make it easier for mainland yachts to enter Hong Kong waters.
On January 9, Chief Secretary for Administration Stephen Lam and the vice-governor of Guangdong Province Zhao Yufang had a joint conference in which they discussed how to strengthen cooperation between Hong Kong and Guangdong. One such measure is to grant yacht licenses that are recognized by both governments—in other words, mainland leisure crafts will be free to enter Hong Kong waters, while Hong Kong crafts get to do the same. As with many other integration policies and measures, very few details are known by the public. A spokeswoman from Transport and Housing Bureau confirms the scheme and reveals that it was suggested by Guangdong authorities. According to the bureau, the scheme is still in the “preliminary stage of discussion,” and that there are no details yet. When asked about future consultation, the bureau only says that it will listen to the views of stakeholders and legislators before policy formulation.
For many, the instant and natural question is whether more yachts in Hong Kong waters will be harmful to the environment. Simon Ng, visiting scholar at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Institute for the Environment, is concerned about the possible environmental impact. “Yachts are smaller in size and they use marine light diesel. When compared to cruise liners, yachts’ emissions are much lower,” says Ng. “However, the question lies in the number of yachts permitted into Hong Kong. If many are allowed, it might have a great impact [on air quality].” In Hong Kong, pleasure vessels—including yachts and boats—use fuel that contains less than 0.5 percent of sulfur, a highly polluting chemical. “It is difficult to say where the [mainland] yachts will get their fuel. If they come to Hong Kong, it will be difficult to trace and find out about the quality of fuel,” Ng says.
Another concern is the threat posed to Hong Kong’s marine life. “We are worried that the marine traffic will increase after the implementation of the scheme. Mainland yacht captains and owners may not know that the Chinese white dolphin and the finless porpoise reside in the western and eastern sides of Hong Kong waters respectively. If their driving speed is high, some of the marine animals may be hit by boats in unprotected waters,” says Samantha Lee, WWF Hong Kong’s senior marine conservation officer. She also points out that there are many coral reefs in Hong Kong’s eastern waters that could be a few hundred years old. “With little knowledge about the precious coral species in Hong Kong, they [mainlanders] may anchor in the coastal seas. Since the anchors are very heavy, the coral [can] be broken.” In Hong Kong seas, marker buoys are used to denote fragile coral areas. “In terms of enforcement, the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department seldom sends officers to patrol the areas. If the government implements the scheme, they have to come up with better information on enforcement [to the public],” says Lee, who is also a frequent diver.
Social commentator Kay Lam is skeptical of the necessity of such a scheme in the first place, as under current regulations; yachts and boats from all over the world can enter Hong Kong waters. According to the Marine Department, visiting pleasure vessels are free to enter Hong Kong, as long as they report to the authorities within 24 hours of arrival. They are pretty much free to arrive, so long as they submit certain documents, including a general declaration form, certificate of registry, a crew list and port clearance issued by the authority of the last port. The official data provided by the Marine Department shows that a total of 171 pleasure vessels from overseas visited Hong Kong in 2010. “The procedures of custom clearances at Hong Kong ports are very complicated and strict,” says Lam. “The point is that pleasure vessels from the mainland are already free to come to Hong Kong. If they want to come, they should go through the current procedures.”
Michael Lieu, director of yacht broker firm Promax, supports the cross-boundary sailing scheme. He does not think that it will dramatically impact Hong Kong, and believes that safety is not an overriding concern. “Yachts are very different from cars... Yachts are operated in the sea, and the chance of collision is very small compared to cars,” Lieu says. “If mainland captains don’t know Hong Kong waters that well, the greater danger is to themselves.” Even though Lieu approves of the scheme, he doesn’t believe that the yacht brokerage industry will particularly benefit. “[Under the scheme,] mainland clients will be based on the mainland, and so they will buy yachts from mainland dealers. The marina business will improve because they can open up temporary moorings and charge more,” says Lieu. According to Lieu, the yacht brokerage business is now in a bottleneck because local customers have given up buying yachts owing to a lack of moorings and berths. Currently, there are 7,660 pleasure vessels registered in Hong Kong, and the scarcity of berths and moorings for these boats are becoming an increasing problem. According to a study released by Designing Hong Kong in February, there are only about 4,000 berths and moorings in the city and all the marinas are reaching full capacity. If Hong Kong allows mainland yachts into the city, it will definitely intensify the competition for moorings and berths, driving the rents sky-high.
Hong Kong is blessed with beautiful waters, but for most of us, owning a boat is almost impossible—the biggest barrier being crippling mooring fees and berths. “For wealthy people, they can afford big boats. The marina is full and everything [in the marina] is expensive. Then, some people in Hong Kong have very small boats with outboard engines, and they are hiding the boats. The research shows that family boats, which normally exist in other markets, are not seen in Hong Kong. We believe the reason is that it is too expensive to be a member of the club and there is no space to keep them,” says Paul Zimmerman, chief executive officer of Designing Hong Kong. A mooring at a private marina can cost several thousand dollars per month—and that’s exclusive of expensive membership fees.
Unlike countries like Singapore, Japan and the United States, Hong Kong does not have public marinas, which offer cheap places for citizens to park their boats and store their water sports equipment. Zimmerman is not absolutely against the idea of allowing mainland yachts into Hong Kong, but he thinks that the government should make its priorities right. “We would like these people to come because it’s good for the economy, but you don’t want to drive up the price [of moorings and berths] for local people... mainland yacht owners should not be a burden to Hong Kong. The only way to do that is to make sure that there are lots of facilities for local people before we allow them in,” Zimmerman adds.
The cross-boundary sailing scheme sounds rather unnecessary, as mainland yachts are already free to come under the current regulations. But in order to ensure that the environment will not be upset by an increasing number of mainland crafts, Hong Kong may need to tighten up marine patrolling, and the cost needs to be borne by taxpayers. Also, the economic benefit brought by the scheme appears rather insignificant. If the government believes that there’s a potential to boost the yacht industry, the current lack of moorings and berths will mean that little growth will be possible. It appears that the search for appropriate coastal sites to build more berths, moorings and marinas—ones that do no upset marine ecology or the environment—is a more pressing task than issuing permits for mainland yacht owners and captains.