“A picture paints a thousand words.” David Gates of the soft pop group Bread wrote the song in 1971. Unsurprisingly It was a worldwide hit for the band. Such powerful imagery explains why all major languages have a similar expression and concept: words spoken orally or written on paper do not have the same impact. That is why the recent press picture of well-heeled tourists queueing outside the Kaitak Cruise Terminal waiting for a taxi sparked such a strong reaction. Within days an urgent high-level meeting had been convened by the government to establish what went wrong and what could be done about it.

After all, it doesn’t matter how many good stories there are about Hong Kong, or how well we tell them, the media both locally and overseas will always be on the lookout for a negative one, especially if there is a good picture to back it up. The sad truth is this has been a PR fiasco just waiting to happen for over a decade.

For me, the story began in May 1999 when, much to everyone’s surprise including my own, I was appointed as Hong Kong’s first Commissioner for Tourism. I was already Director of the Financial Secretary’s Office the schedule of which had recently been expanded to include the negotiations with the Walt Disney Company. Now here was a whole new job to be squeezed in somehow.

First step was to set up a Tourism Strategy Group to bring together all the big beasts of the industry and thrash out some ideas. One of those to emerge early on was a proposal for a purpose-built world class cruise terminal to manage the larger vessels rather than the smaller “call-in” type of cruise ships which Ocean Terminal could handle.

Up to that time much of the emphasis in marketing Hong Kong as a visitor destination had been on our reputation as a “Shoppers’ Paradise”. Fine, we would keep that up as long as we could but eventually competing destinations might begin to catch up. (Dubai and Hainan have since done so). Even if we could maintain our edge, there was surely no harm in having an extra string to our bow. And Hong Kong is ideally located to be the hub for the cruise industry in Asia. A seven-day voyage north to Japan with attractive stopover options in Taiwan, Shanghai or Korea, or south to Singapore with potential stops in Hainan, Vietnam or Thailand. Cruise passengers could begin in Hong Kong then fly home from the other end, or start at those cities and finish here. Almost by definition, cruise passengers are relatively better off, exactly the kind of leisure visitors destinations seek to attract.

Thereafter the cruise terminal project became a part of the Kaitak development planning proposals. In many ways, this was an ideal arrangement: the harbour is one of Hong Kong’s major attractions in its own right so having large cruise ships dock at the heart of it would from first arrival give visitors a fabulous vista. The deep water alongside the old runway was ideal for a berth. The overall plans for the area included many compatible uses that would complement each other – the Tourism Node, hotels, parks, promenades, a public transport interchange, extensive parking facilities etc. The downside of the arrangement was that any re-thinking of parts of the development, or delay in provision of infrastructure, would impact on terminal operations. Which is more or less what happened.

The cruise terminal itself opened in 2013 but many of the roads in the vicinity have still not been completed. The monorail was cancelled, there is no public transport interchange and very limited parking. The complementary facilities are nowhere in sight. The terminal is served by a single road – an accident on it on the day the mega ship arrived recently effectively blocked access in and out for a couple of hours.

The terminal operator and the cruise lines are fully familiar with the situation and have introduced a number of workaround solutions. On the day in question, around two thirds of the passengers had been transported smoothly away from the terminal on pre-arranged excursion coaches and other forms of transport. A Hong Kong-based transport expert, Alok Jain, told a radio programme last week that other band-aid solutions were also feasible, for example gazetting and pre-approving special bus services to kick in automatically on vessel arrival days as they do in Happy Valley on race days. Interestingly, Jain also strongly endorsed the original package of transportation arrangements as drawn up by government planners.

But the problem of insufficient taxi services remains. Some more incentives are being introduced. But essentially these are palliative measures, we want our tourism sector to be flourishing, not clinging on for survival. We should revert urgently to the original development package and see how many items can be restored quickly: there is vacant land nearby for parking; there is an adjacent site that could be sold for hotel development quickly; the Tourist Node should be revived immediately and so on. If the monorail is indeed not to go ahead then we need a quick decision on its alternative.

In conclusion, we have a situation where the tourism strategists were right to anticipate challenges to our status and the need to expand the tourism product. The transport planners were correct in their assessment of passenger needs once a world-class facility was in place. We now need to improve implementation.