This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
Star Ferry can trace its origins back to 1880 when Parsi chef Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala embarked on a new vocation and began a ferry service across Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour with his steamboat, Morning Star.
Known as the Kowloon Ferry Company, the fledgling service expanded quickly and by 1980, the fleet comprised four single-deck ferries, each bearing ‘Star’ as part of their names. Over the next 10 years, British business man Sir Catchick Paul Chater bought all the ferries and in May 1898, Star Ferry Company became a public company.
In 2018, Star Ferries will celebrate its 120th anniversary and now has a fleet of 10 ferries serving two franchised ferry routes – one between Tsim Sha Tsui and Hong Kong’s central district, and the other between Tsim Sha Tsui and Wanchai and two sightseeing water tours. Since July 2003, Star Ferry has provided harbour tours. The one-hour journey starts in Tsim Sha Tsui and goes on to Central and Wanchai before returning to Tsim Sha Tsui, allowing visitors to take in a variety of harbour views at leisure.
Millions of commuters and tourists sail with Star Ferry every year, both on the ferries and the harbour/water tours. “In 2016, for example, the ferries carried about 19.5 million passengers,” says Johnny Leung, general manager of Star Ferries. “About 30% of these passengers were tourists, most of whom took the ferry because they wanted to tick off one of the experiences included on National Geographic’s ‘50 Places of a Lifetime’ list. TripAdvisor has also granted Star Ferry a certificate of excellence for several consecutive years.”
In 2014, Star Ferry relocated its services to the new Wanchai Pier, 100 metres further north of the older Wanchai (East) Pier, which was demolished and reclaimed to accommodate the Central-Wanchai bypass.
“The relocation resulted in a 30% patronage diversion, and we suffered significant loss on fare receipts from commuters,” admits Leung. “However, the move brought an opportunity to introduce quality tenants, such as well-known Japanese seafood brand Yamataka, to the new ferry pier. This gross sales sharing amount has benefited our non-fare box revenues.”
Star Ferry is also hoping the government’s HK$12 billion (US$1.53 billion) redevelopment project in Victoria Harbour has a positive impact on Star Ferry’s operations.
“Activities, events and the Ferris wheel at the new waterfront and promenade in Central have occasionally brought additional patronage to the ferry crossing between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui,” says Leung. “Nevertheless, the benefits on fare receipts are insufficient to stabilise the financial health of the ferry services. We aim to stabilise the fares and generate more non-fare box income by recruiting more concession activities at the Central Star Ferry Pier.”
To further combat rising operational costs and a fall in revenues, Star Ferry was given the green light to increase prices on franchised routes across Victoria Harbour in 2017. This marked the first price rise for a number of years.
“New fares came into effect 15 July 2017 and although commuters need to pay 20 cents more, fares on the ferry crossings are still competitive when they are compared to those of other modes of cross-harbour transport,” comments Leung. “The ferry franchise will expire in March 2018, and the renewal process for another 15 years is in progress.”
Elsewhere in the business, Leung and his team have focused on decreasing the environmental impact of the ferries, primarily to meet the Hong Kong government’s stricter sulphur emissions limits.
“Star Ferry is one of the pioneers in the local maritime industry because we introduced low-emission technologies on our fleet,” Leung says. “We’ve successfully introduced exhaust gas cleaning systems that remove sulphur dioxide from our ferries’ emissions. Moreover, the whole fleet is now bunkered with low sulphur content diesel fuel to meet the government’s sulphur emission limits.”
In 2016, Star Ferry gave decommissioned ferry World Star a new lease of life as part of a HK$14 million (US$1.79 million) project co-funded by the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department’s Pilot Green Transport Fund. Originally a passenger ferry serving the Wanchai-Hunghom route, the refurbished vessel was relaunched as Hong Kong’s first diesel-electric ferry and has higher propulsion efficiency and substantially lower emissions.
“World Star is now a water tour ferry that provides an unprecedented route from Tsim Sha Tsui ferry terminal that goes beyond Victoria Harbour to take tourists and locals to Disneyland on Lantau Island,” says Leung. “As an environmentally friendly ferry making use of the latest low-emission technologies, World Star is a good example of an eco-ferry bringing about substantial reduction in emissions, but delivering higher propulsion efficiency. World Star’s transformation reduces substantial smoke values and eliminates 95% sulphur dioxide, while her diesel power generators meet the requirements of US Environmental Protection Agency Tier 3 standards, which mandate that nitrogen emissions are 112% lower than the Tier 2 models.”
Following the successful relaunch of World Star, Leung says Star Ferry will continue exploring and investing in low-emission technologies for the rest of its fleet. “We plan to convert our classic fleet to eco ferries without changing their iconic look.”
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