Hong Kong’s Star Ferry faces an uncertain future, as ridership falls and debt climbs

by | Jul 27, 2022 | Top Stories

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Hong Kong’s Star Ferry shuttles passengers back and forth across Victoria Harbor. This spring, the Star Ferry reported a loss of about $9 million since the middle of 2019. Ridership has plummeted.

John Ruwitch/NPR

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John Ruwitch/NPR

HONG KONG — If you’ve ever visited Hong Kong, the chances are good that you’ve been on the Star Ferry. Its green-and-white boats shuttle passengers slowly back and forth across Victoria Harbor, with the city’s unmistakable skyline as the backdrop. One recent afternoon, Roy Leung, an interior designer, stepped off the ferry on the Kowloon side. “In the morning, I take the subway, but I prefer after work I take the ferry,” he says. Asked why, his reply is simple. “It’s chill.” The Star Ferry is indeed chill — a slow glide across a storied waterway that divides an otherwise fast-paced city. It costs roughly 40 cents each way. Its vintage double-decker boats have open windows, worn wooden benches and are lined on the outside with white life preservers.

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A passenger photographs Hong Kong’s skyline while riding the Star Ferry.

John Ruwitch/NPR

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John Ruwitch/NPR

It’s a throwback, with the service seemingly barely changed since the ferry featured in the opening scene of the 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong. What has changed is everything around the ferry. The city has boomed. Cross-harbor tunnels and a world-class subway system whittled down the number of commuters that relied on the ferry. Tourists became a key source of revenue.

But political turbulence — culminating in widespread, sometimes-violent, anti-government protests in 2019 — scared off visitors. And the Hong Kong government has kept the border mostly sealed shut since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to worries about the ferry’s future. The Star Ferry’s ridership and finances have plummeted since 2019 In past years, the Tsim Sha Tsui pier, where Leung disembarks, was bustling and crowded. These days, in the middle of the week, there are so few people that it feels like a holiday. Mak Seng has run a newspaper stand at Tsim Sha Tsui for four decades. His parents ran it before him. “Business has gone down. It’s undeniable,” he says. “The best years were my parents’ generation.”

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One person walks toward the entrance to board the ferry. Cross-harbor tunnels and a world-class subway system whittled down the number of commuters that relied on the ferry.

John Ruwitch/NPR

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