Before it closed in 1998, there were few airports in the world that rivalled Hong Kong’s Kai Tak for visual drama. Planes flying into the area would cut through the surrounding mountains, between the dense, decaying high-rise blocks of Kowloon, and land on a runway that jutted out into the surrounding harbour.

It was stark, dangerous and beautiful, but in the end, too small to keep up with Hong Kong’s economic expansion. In just under a decade, the volume of flights and passengers to enjoy Kai Tak’s hair-raising ‘checkerboard turn’ doubled, leaving the airport congested and unable to keep up with demand.

The solution was to build an entirely new airport, this time on Chek Lap Kok, a few miles away from the site of Kai Tak Airport. Designed by British architectural firm Foster + Partners and opened in 1998, the airport was a huge success for China’s special administrative region. After just ten years, it became the 11th-busiest airport in the world and the largest by cargo traffic.

But it also left a problem. Hong Kong is a city famously short of living space; the urban area has the highest population and employment density in the world, with seven million people living on just over 1,000km2 of land.

When Kai Tak Airport closed, not only did it remove a famous skyline from international flight itineraries, but it also meant a large, empty site was left within touching distance of the caged homes and rusting shanties of Kowloon. Things needed to change, and it was the cruise industry that the Hong Kong Government turned to.

Style – and substance

On 12 June last year, 15 years after the old airport shut down, Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of The Seas became the first cruise line to dock at Kai Tak Cruise Terminal – a new, half-mile-long sausage-shaped building built on the south-western tip of the old runway.

As with Hong Kong International Airport and the headquarters of HSBC, Kai Tak’s design was left to Foster + Partners, a practice that knows the area better than most other international firms. The building is, like much of the firm’s other work, a deeply impressive piece of architecture. The first thing that strikes you is its practicality; there’s a vast arrival hall that can process 3,000 passengers every hour, two berths for the world’s largest cruise ships and wide bays to let in as much sunlight as possible.

Equally impressive is the statement it makes about the importance of architecture and design to the guest experience. As ships approach the terminal, they see a shimmering, futuristic grey facade set against the Kowloon skyline. The long tubular shape sticks into the Victoria Harbour, and a huge roof garden offers passengers and other visitors panoramic views of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers. It is, according to the US lifestyle magazine Departures, "the Rolls-Royce of cruise terminals".

"When people come into this city and see the terminal, they know they are coming somewhere with a truly first-class infrastructure."

"It’s been very well received," says Jeff Bent, managing director of Worldwide Cruise Terminals, the company in charge of managing and operating Kai Tak. "Unlike a lot of terminals that are built away from city centres, the Hong Kong Government realised that this was going to be a part of the beautiful Victoria Harbour. They wanted the building to fully capture the value of the area so that, when people come into this city and see the terminal, they know they are coming somewhere with a truly first-class infrastructure."

The Hong Kong Government is not alone in believing aspirational design to be an important aspect of the guest experience. As airports once were, cruise terminals are traditionally seen as places for processing people, spaces to have your passport stamped and boarding cards checked.

But a number of projects around the world suggest this is changing. Sydney’s White Bay Cruise Terminal, designed by Johnson Pilton Walker Architects, features a dramatic roof canopy that references the area’s industrial past. Shanghai’s new terminal offers passengers a bubble-shaped glass viewing tower to look at the city they’ve arrived at. And in southern Italy, the Salerno Port Authority has commissioned Zaha Hadid to build a new terminal by the ferry port.

What these projects share is a desire to make a statement via transport infrastructure, to make buildings a component of the guest experience and to use big-name architects as a means of achieving it.

A long fuse

Of course, spending HK$8.2 billion on a terminal for a place where most travellers have never taken a cruise in their lives may sound a bit reckless; Hong Kong already had a smaller terminal in Kowloon that many thought was adequate for the level of demand.

Perhaps that should have been a deterrent. Any hope that the new terminal would be inundated by a flood of arrivals has been quickly dashed by the site of an almost perennially empty arrival hall. However iconic the building might look from the outside, from inside, the industry levels of interest have been disappointingly low.

"The economic viability of the Kai Tak terminal is extremely limited," said Paul Zimmerman, founder of Designing Hong Kong, recently. "We’ve given it an enormous piece of land, so it’s an overinvestment. This is not a massive growth market; it’s going to be a slow, steady increase."

Of course, not everyone agrees with that. Over the past few years, industry experts have been predicting dramatic growth in the Asian cruise sector as infrastructure improves and an affluent middle-class consumer market emerges.

In 2011, Shanghai opened the Wusongkou International Cruise Terminal in Baoshan district. By the end of 2014, 217 cruises and more than one million passengers are set to berth at the port. In 2012, Singapore followed suit by opening the Marina Bay Cruise Centre, another large port that can accommodate the very latest ocean liners.

These are significant developments and a sign of confidence in the region’s potential as a cruise destination. As things stand, the Mediterranean and Caribbean still dominate the sector; however, by 2020, seven million passengers are expected to enter the cruise market, and Kai Tak is clearly well placed to absorb that.

"The terminal was built because the cruise industry demanded it," says Bent. "The cruise lines have noticed that China is now the world’s largest outbound travel market, and it’s a place they want to get exposure with. The Hong Kong Government was told by cruise lines that they needed a new modern infrastructure to deploy ships to. They could berth at container terminals, but they wanted a proper guest experience with great facilities.

"There are many success stories already," he adds. "Carnival Group is expected to send four ships to the terminal next year. Royal Caribbean went from berthing a single tiny ship at the old port three years ago to running four enormous ones at Kai Tak. Next year, we’re expecting 97 ships to call over 115 days, which is a big spike from this year.

"Cruise lines tend to plan two years in advance, so they waited until they saw that there was a facility physically ready before deciding to send their billion-dollar assets here. We always knew we would start to get busy two years after the first ship berthed in 2013 – I just don’t think the press has figured that out."

Landmark architecture may not be enough to speed up Hong Kong’s cruise sector on its own, but there’s little doubt that the terminal at Kai Tak is a statement of intent. With an emerging middle-class customer base and cruise operators that are increasingly adventurous about where they go, the Rolls-Royce of cruise terminals is set to be far more than just a pretty building.