Buses drive on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge during the first day operation of the world’s longest cross-sea project on Wednesday. (AP photo)
Stella Kwan Mun-yee has waited 12 years for the cross-border mega bridge to reshape the tourism industry on Lantau island.
Managing director of the city’s signature cable-car operator, Ngong Ping 360, Kwan hopes the 55 kilometre Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge will not only bring more travellers to the city, but will also boost tourism, which is on track to make a thorough recovery from its 2015 slump.
Kwan believes Lantau, Hong Kong’s biggest island, could emerge as a new tourism hub with the bridge encouraging tourists to visit other parts of the city than the traditionally popular, Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay.
“Since we started our business on Lantau Island 12 years ago, the development has been relatively slow, and Hong Kong hasn’t built any major new attractions in the past two or three years,” Kwan said. “We have waited for the bridge for a long time, and look forward to the completion of the third runway, and Skycity, [at Hong Kong International Airport].”
The sight of cars and coaches arriving on Lantau direct from mainland China, plus the looming development alongside the infrastructure that already exists, has given Kwan hope that the island can become a “self-contained destination”.
“Visitors can shop, eat, go to concerts, hike, visit the Tai O fishing village, take the cable car, tour the island, and stay overnight at Disneyland,” Kwan said.
Kwan’s company operates a 5.7km cable-car route between Tung Chung and Ngong Ping village, and the managing director expects the bridge to bring more visitors from cities in the western Guangdong province, such as Maoming, Zhanjian and Yangjiang.
The village is a Buddhist-themed tourist attraction, located a short distance from the Big Buddha, a large bronze statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, completed in 1993.
In addition to the new connection with Macau and Zhuhai, Lantau will undergo a transformation over the course of the next few years with the HK$20 billion (84 billion baht) development of Skycity, a huge commercial, hotel and retail project next to the airport.
The first phase of the 25-hectare site is expected to be completed in 2023, with further stages coming online until the final phase is finished in 2027.
Tung Chung’s popular mall, Citygate Outlet, is also expanding, with development expected to finish early next year.
The 34-metre-high Big Buddha above the surrounding forest on Lantau in Hong Kong is one of the major attractions on the island. (EPA-EFE photo)
The Hong Kong Tourism Board has predicted the bridge, and the new cross-border high-speed rail link, will boost tourist numbers to the city by 3.6%, to about 60 million people. Regarded as one of the four pillars of Hong Kong’s economy, tourism contributed 4.7% to the city’s gross domestic product in 2016 .
Allan Zeman, founder of entertainment precinct Lan Kwai Fong, in the city’s Central District, said the new infrastructure repositioned Lantau, which used to be heavily dependent on farming, to become “a very important part” of the city’s tourism product.
“The Greater Bay Area has 67 million people, Lantau will become the entrance point for people coming from there,” Zeman said, referring to Beijing’s plan to create a technology hub in southern China comprising Hong Kong, Macau and nine Guangdong province cities.
Travel agencies have already geared up to get a slice of the pie by advertising the cities together.
For example, Guangzhou-based GZL International Travel Service has launched packages for travellers to visit Macau and Hong Kong, or Zhuhai and Hong Kong, in one go. One two-day tour from Foshan, to Hong Kong and Zhuhai, cost less than 400 yuan (1,900 baht).
Zeman said packaging the whole bay area to appeal to tourists could open up a new market.
“Many people, foreigners from overseas, from South Asia, Southeast Asia, from Korea have come to Hong Kong or Japan,” he said. “But now we have something new to offer to get people to come to the Greater Bay Area, to come to all these cities.”
Brian King, associate dean at Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management, cautioned that a closer collaboration would mean rising competition for Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, and Ocean Park, the city’s two major theme parks.
King said the bridge, which puts Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau within an hour of each other, would make the theme parks in Zhuhai, including Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, and Shenzhen more accessible for residents.
Chris Yoshii, global director leisure of multinational engineering firm Aecom, said theme parks in the region should up their game as competition heated up.
“Anytime there is improvement to transportation, it will broaden competition,” he said. “Theme parks need to reinvest and upgrade what they offer, there is a need for new themes, and seasonal activities.”
Yoshii estimated that the number of travellers in the Greater Bay Area would grow between 5 and 10% annually, which is fastest in the world, as the United States market is expected to grow between 2 and 3%.
King said Hong Kong should think about presenting its green credentials to the world when developing new facilities near the airport on Lantau.
“Look at Singapore,” he said. “Singapore calls itself a ‘city in a garden’, and Singapore is really pushing ahead with sustainability credentials. So, I think Hong Kong needs to not just have government initiatives, but they need the developers really to build these green concepts into their DNA.”
The academic also called on Hong Kong’s hotel industry to “open its eyes” to resort ideas for tourists to come and relax, suggesting more water activities or spa facilities could be introduced on Lantau.
“Macau calls itself the world’s centre for tourism and leisure,” he said.
“Now, does Hong Kong really want Macau to be the world centre? Does it want all the people to come to conferences in Hong Kong, and then just head off to the ‘world centre’ down the road to do all the leisure?”
In the four days since it opened, the number of vehicular trips on the bridge fell short of the 2008 government estimate of 9,200 to 14,000 per day.
There were 2,474 vehicular trips across the bridge on Wednesday, 1,938 on Thursday, and 1,990 on Friday.
As of 6pm on Saturday, the first weekend since the bridge opened, 1,883 vehicular trips were recorded.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said the numbers were within the government’s expectations, because it would take time for travellers to get used to the new policy.
He said the government was limiting the number of vehicles that could use the bridge to ensure traffic around Tung Chung, and the airport, would not be affected.
Cheung believes there will be a greater number of users once the government has issued more permits, and people get used to the bridge.