One of the biggest changes to Macau in the 1990s has been the marked improvement in transport facilities. The territory now has an airport, a new jet-foil terminal, better roads, a second bridge connecting Macau with Taipa Island and, later this year, a first bridge and second border crossing linking Macau with main-land China. In total, some US$2.5bn has been spent on transport since 1991.
Planners are not resting on their laurels – over the next decade there is talk of new ferry links, a railway connection with China and a deepwater port. If these initiatives happen, Macau could realise its ambition of becoming an important regional transport hub.
"Macau can be the transportation centre for the western side of the Pearl River delta," says Dr. Leonel Miranda, president of Air Macau and director of the government cooperation and planning office. Currently, links are much better developed on the east coast of southern China.
However, there are major doubts about whether these new facilities will actually be established. It is much easier for an outgoing administration to talk of bold new initiatives than for an incoming government to find the resources necessary to build them.
This is particularly the case with the railway, a long cherished dream. The idea is for a terminal to be established near Macau airport, with a line built to connect to Zhuhai and then on to Guangzhou. Miranda believes a rail link could be established by 2003 but this would depend on a swift approval process following the handover.
The creation of such a line would benefit the air cargo sector. The amount of cargo handled by the airport during the first seven months of 1999 was 16 percent down on the same period last year. However it should be noted that the 1998 performance was inflated by business being diverted from the new airport at Hong Kong, which experienced serious teething problems.
Air Macau says its air freight business is growing, particularly with the Mainland. The carrier plans to take a stake in a new air freight company and it hopes negotiations with other possible partners will be completed by the end of this year. "The bridge is very important," says Mr. Dominic Ching, marketing development manager of Air Macau. "It will help to serve the whole region and open up trans-cargo from Taiwan."
The main uncertainty relating to a new port is the shallow water which surrounds the territory. "Geographically, I don't think Macau can develop a deepwater port as all the silting in the Pearl River happens in the west because of the earth's rotation to the east," explains Mr. Ambrose So, director of Shun Tak Holdings.
Second border crossing
Macau and Zhuhai each have their own plans for a port and many believe that the Mainland city has stronger claims. Miranda contends Macau should take advantage of its status as a free port by building a deepwater facility. However he recognises the practical difficulties and the adverse impact such a port would have on tourism.
Whatever the outcome, it is positive to see that Macau is engaging with officials from the Mainland, particularly from Zhuhai, and talking with each other in a constructive way. This was not the case early this decade.
A joint committee for infrastructure with representatives from Portugal, Macau and China was established in 1997 to discuss regional transport issues. "If this committee were established before 1997 it would probably have fostered better coordination [in the region], but the work we have done after it was created has been important for both sides," says Miranda.
He adds that cooperation is good between Macau and the Mainland but more could be done to involve Hong Kong and the greater Pearl River delta region.
Ambrose So concurs: "The future SAR government needs to work with China very closely on the allocation and rationalisation of resources. For example you have airports in Macau, Zhuhai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong." Macau international airport was opened in 1995 with an annual capacity of 6m passengers, the same year as Zhuhai completed an airport capable of handling 20m passengers a year, yet it is restricted to just Mainland routes.
One initiative that will certainly go ahead is the opening in December of a new bridge that will connect Taipa with the west side of Zhuhai, creating a much-needed second border crossing with the Mainland. Drivers will not be charged for crossing the Lotus Flower Bridge but the issue of who will be granted permission to take vehicles onto the Mainland is far from being resolved.
Ambitious plans for a bridge to Hong Kong, proposed by Zhuhai, have been dropped. "It would be very expensive and we have other priorities," says Miranda.