It’s Hong Kong Maritime Week where our brand new magazine is being distributed at multiple events. The local maritime community knows how to improve Hong Kong’s hub potential. Will the authorities listen?
Asia’s World City continues to have its many advocates and admirers as a leading maritime hub but there’s always room for improvement, particularly at a time when the shipping industry is undergoing rapid, disruptive change. What are the city’s greatest weaknesses in coping with the evolving challenges and what more should the HKSAR government be doing to address these?
Broker Valerie Toucas identifies a dwindling local workforce, as well as a lack of attraction for international candidates and companies.
“We have seen too many companies move away, with little or no new companies coming in not just to fill the gap but to grow our maritime industry here,” she says. This in turn becomes a vicious circle: “As the size of the sector reduces, so it will become ever more difficult to attract new business here.”
Cetus Maritime’s Tabitha Logan believes a major factor for this lies in the ageing local demographic. “Many of Hong Kong’s experienced maritime professionals are approaching retirement age,” she says, “and this could lead to a shortage of skilled maritime workers in the future. Without a pipeline of younger talent then there is a risk that this wealth of experience is not passed onto the next generation.
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It will become ever more difficult to attract new business here
“We are also facing increasing competition from other global maritime centres,” she adds, “such as Singapore and Shanghai which are investing heavily in their maritime infrastructure, innovation, and services.”
“Internationally, many countries are actively working to attract business to their major cities and ports, and are not shy about introducing and promoting new incentives,” agrees Caravel’s Angad Banga. “In Hong Kong, like in any market, continued and consistent pro-business messaging backed by actions will continue to be helpful to attract and retain companies to base themselves here.”
Statutory body quest
Wah Kwong’s Captain J.F. Zhou notes the positive that in early 2023 the HKSAR established a Taskforce on Maritime and Port Development Strategy, to enhance Hong Kong’s role as a maritime hub with deepened public-private partnership, in line with the challenges of decarbonisation and digitalisation, at the same growing the conditions for shipping’s business services. Lawyer Damien Laracy dubs this “a further step in the right direction to develop a coordinated game plan to facilitate the continued growth of the core strengths of Hong Kong.”
But Zhou feels that more is still needed with the setting up a statutory body for the maritime industry to maintain Hong Kong’s position as a leading international shipping centre, keep up with the pace of change and position the city strategically. While the HKSAR government is to be “commended” for its moves so far, he says, “it’s been proven, in the aviation industry, that setting up a statutory body staffed by full-time professionals will produce long-term dividends and elevate Hong Kong’s position.”
Ince’s Rosita Lau certainly agrees. Besides Hong Kong’s “high cost of living” she calls its greatest weakness “the lack of a body, be it a statutory body or otherwise, that devotes all its time and resources to hold hands with the industry to develop the maritime industry with foresight and international vision, and according to a well-planned road map that captures all factos needed.”
The local industry has long been calling for such a body and there’s a feeling that the time for inaction is past, but any new entity must have “the right people and right strategies to allocate the resources effectively”, notes Brian Yam of International SOS.
Shipowner Wellington Koo admits “nowhere is perfect, including Hong Kong” and offers two pieces of advice to the HKSAR government. Firstly, that they should foster innovation and commercialisation across the Greater Bay Area (GBA), using the combined pool of expertise “to spearhead new marine technologies, ideas and practices, with the GBA as a springboard to the end-users in rest of China and world markets.” He gives cyber-risk management as an example where the expertise of Hong Kong’s shipmanagement community could be allied with with Guangzhou’s “comprehensive shipbuilding industry” and Shenzhen’s strength in “innovation and technology”.
Secondly, he says the government “could, and should, continue to tell the Hong Kong stories well’ in order to get the right messages across, both to young people considering a career in maritime and to overseas businesses thinking of setting up in the territory. “In this Age of the Information, we have to get better at presenting ourselves and telling our many good, fantastic stories,” he says, adding: “If we wish to encourage the young generation to join the industry these days, it is not about the salary and perks only, but also important things like ESG.”
Others, including Tabitha Logan, believe it really all boils down to a question of investment. The maritime industry is facing unprecedented regulatory change in the next decade,” she observes, and “Hong Kong now has a unique opportunity to support this transition through investment in innovation, talent, training, and position itself as a leading international shipping centre and a zero emissions port.”
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For the port industry, “Hong Kong is currently not competing at a level playing field as other countries/places are having huge government support and subsidy,” says Modern Terminals’ Horace Low. “With the change in the overall competitive landscape in South China and the rest of Asia, the HKSAR government needs to work with stakeholders to put in place supporting policies to enhance the competitiveness of the Port of Hong Kong, in particular, for the port development.” Central government can also help better coordinate strategies of the different GBA ports for the benefit of all, he suggests.
Innovation, innovation, innovation
SeaQuest Shipmanagement’s Vinod Sehgal identifies several areas as suitable for greater government investment including ports, education and training, and technical services. “Hong Kong is lagging in technological advancement,” he says, “and the government should take the lead in the adoption of digital technologies, such as 3D printing, AI, blockchain, automation, and data analytics.”
Lloyd’s Register’s James Forsdyke agrees, believing the government’s three main priorities should be: “Innovation, innovation, innovation. The HKSAR government must work with the industry and its counterparts globally to create an environment where the industry can innovate, disrupt and reframe business models to address the opportunities presented by digitalisation and the energy transition.”
BSM’s Firoze Mirza would also like to see more government investment in “stronger R&D initiatives focused on maritime technology and sustainability, in order to maintain a competitive edge in the industry,” as well as enhanced collaboration between the government, industry stakeholders, and educational institutions to develop specialised maritime training programmes. But he concludes in suitably upbeat fashion that “We have a strong maritime community in Hong Kong that can jointly shape a bright future.”
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