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Hong Kong: Owners battle to right the ship

Wellington Koo, chairman of the city’s shipowning association, knows how to get Hong Kong back on the maritime map. Will the authorities listen? The concluding instalment from our Hong Kong special.

Wellington Koo has followed his forebears to assume chairmanship of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association (HKSOA). Arguably his two-year rein at the influential local body will be more fraught with difficulties than any faced by his father, grandfather and uncle, all of whom held the same role in the past.

Koo, executive director at Valles Steamship, took on the HKSOA leadership a year ago. He is the fourth generation at the helm of privately held Valles, one of the city’s oldest shipowners.

The shipping industry is a highly competitive global business, Koo admits, conceding that in recent years Hong Kong’s shipping industry has faced “huge constraints and challenges”, and shipping companies, businesses and talent have flowed out of Hong Kong. Indeed, the membership and gatherings of the HKSOA are a distant cry of what they used to be.

The city’s economy is externally oriented and highly dependent on trade with the rest of the world

“Hong Kong must speed up its transformation and upgrading to cope with the new competitive landscape,” Koo says, pointing towards opportunities presented by Beijing’s determination to forge ahead with the Greater Bay Area, which will see the former British colony become more enmeshed and intertwined in the economic set-up across the border in a number of southern Chinese provinces.

To get the city’s shipping credentials back on track, Koo has been repeatedly calling for a return to Hong Kong’s pre-pandemic global roots.

“To consolidate its position as a leading maritime hub, Hong Kong should continue to pitch itself as an international finance, shipping and trade centre, as set out in the national strategic plans,” Koo tells Splash, the key part, he stresses, being “international”.

“This is what makes Hong Kong unique, and why Hong Kong is Hong Kong,” he says.

Ensuring freedom of movement, and easing current quarantine rules, will be vital to getting the city back on the maritime map, he urges.

“Throughout history, there have always been challenges of different sorts at different times. The situation is the same for Hong Kong as an Asian entrepôt, especially as the city’s economy is externally oriented and highly dependent on trade with the rest of the world,” Koo says, setting the scene for the current frustration at the ongoing pandemic impasse that has blighted Hong Kong, a place the authorities like to brand as ‘Asia’s World City’.

“Shipping is a truly global industry, with ships going to different parts of the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Koo says, adding: “It is most important for global and local entrepreneurs, executives, professionals and technical staff in the industry to be able to travel into and out of the city without unnecessary restrictions.”

While the HKSOA was happy to see the new John Lee administration relax quarantine rules, they are still not on a par with most other locations and are not conducive to attract international business travellers and for the city to reconnect with the world.

Another issue, something that both his father and uncle fought for too, centres around government administration.

While the former Transport and Housing Bureau has been split up, with the establishment of a new policy bureau dedicated to transport matters – the Transport and Logistics Bureau – Koo still feels this is not enough.

“Throughout the years, the maritime industry has strongly advocated the establishment of an independent, statutory body for the maritime industry,” Koo points out.

Hong Kong should continue to pitch itself as an international finance, shipping and trade centre

The current Hong Kong Maritime and Port Board, set up in April 2016, has been in place for over six years, which Koo says is more than enough time for all the stakeholders to have observed and reflected on its operations.

“Our government always emphasises its open attitude and the need for a phased approach. This is clearly an opportune time to review and to take the next incremental step forward,” Koo says.
Angad Banga, of The Caravel Group, currently serving as HKSOA deputy chairman will likely become chairman in November 2023.

This article appears in Splash’s Hong Kong Market Report 2022, distributed across multiple events at Hong Kong Maritime Week. Splash readers can access the full magazine for free by clicking here.


Splash is Asia Shipping Media’s flagship title offering timely, informed and global news from the maritime industry 24/7.

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