The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge is lit up in Hong Kong. Image Credit: AP

Hong Kong: China on Tuesday opened the world's longest sea_crossing bridge linking Hong Kong to the mainland, a feat of engineering carrying immense economic and political significance.

Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over a ceremony in the city of Zhuhai to open the 55km bridge linking it to the semi-autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau. Digital fireworks exploded on a screen behind him as leaders of the three cities watched.

The $20 billion (Dh73.5 billion) bridge took almost a decade to build while incurring major delays and cost overruns. It includes an undersea tunnel allowing ships to pass through the Pearl River delta, the heart of China's crucial manufacturing sector.

The 55km bridge was originally due to open in 2016, but repeated delays pushed that to this year.

It is a key element of China’s plan for a Greater Bay Area covering 56,500 square km across southern China, and encompassing 11 cities, including Hong Kong and Macau, that are home to a combined 68 million people.

 

Proponents of the idea say the bridge will cut journey times between the cities from three hours to 30 minutes, which they say will enable commuters and tourists to easily move around the region.

$20b
the cost at which the bridge was built

Despite the focus on drive time however, private car owners in Hong Kong will not be able to cross the bridge without a special permit.

Most drivers will have to park at the Hong Kong port, switching to shuttle bus or special hire cars once they are through immigration.

Shuttle buses cost $8-$10 for a single trip depending on the time of day.

The bridge project has come in for fierce criticism in Hong Kong, where there was little public demand or appetite for greater links to either Macau or Zhuhai, and fears the city will be swamped by tourists from mainland China, CNN said.

2009
when construction began on the project

In 2016, Hong Kong saw 56.7 million tourist arrivals, compared to 37.6 million for the UK, a much larger country.

The project has been dogged by delays, budget overruns, corruption prosecutions and the deaths of construction workers.

While supporters promote it as an engineering marvel, others see the multi-billion dollar project as a costly white elephant designed to further integrate Hong Kong into the mainland at a time when Beijing is tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city.

Bus companies supposed to be operating on the bridge complained they were in the dark.

55km
is the overall crossing length

“At such short notice and without any details, how can we make the necessary logistic arrangements?” Eddie Choi, a spokesman for coach operator One Bus Hong Kong Macau, told the South China Morning Post.

An official from the mainland-based bridge authority said the bridge would be “considered open” from Tuesday and confirmed there would be access that day to registered cars and buses, but did not elaborate.