HONG KONG - The world's longest sea bridge was officially opened on Tuesday (Oct 23) by Chinese President Xi Jinping, linking up Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland's River Delta cities to form the Greater Bay Area.
Mr Xi declared the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge officially open at a ceremony in southern mainland city Zhuhai. The crossing will open to traffic on Wednesday.
Hailed as an engineering wonder, the US$20 billion bridge is the central plank in China's master plan to create and develop its own bay area to rival those in San Francisco, New York and Tokyo.
The authorities hope that the Greater Bay Area, made up of 11 cities and a population of 68 million, will become a single market with strengths in infrastructure, finance, manufacturing and technology.
But critics also see the bridge, the latest mega infrastructure project linking Hong Kong to the mainland after the US$11 billion Hong Kong High Speed Rail was launched last month, as part of China's attempt to bind the city more closely to the mainland.
In a speech, Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng, who is in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, said the new bridge is a symbol of how China has gone from strength to strength.
He said: "As the first massive infrastructure project cooperation between the three cities, the opening of the bridge helps with the interaction between residents in the area, has economic benefits, helps push the Greater Bay Area vision forward and is beneficial to the combined competitiveness of Zhuhai, Hong Kong and Macau."
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the bridge will create an ideal living environment where the three cities are within one hour's reach from one another. It also provides a sound foundation for the development of the Greater Bay Area, she said.
The 55km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which took nine years to build, features a dual three-lane main bridge 30km long, two artificial islands and link roads totalling 25km.
Its length has surpassed that of China's 41.6 km Jiaozhou Bay Bridge linking eastern coastal city Qingdao to the district of Huangdao, which was hailed as the world's longest sea bridge when it opened in 2011.
The Hong Kong part of the new bridge starts with the Hong Kong Port on the east of the city's international airport and north of Lantau island. It connects to a link road, followed by a 6.7km sub-sea tunnel in one of the world's busiest waterways, a main bridge and a link road to Zhuhai.
With the bridge, travelling time has been cut significantly.
It will now take 45 minutes instead of four hours to get from Zhuhai to Hong Kong International Airport, officials said.
"Similarly, the travelling time between Zhuhai and Kwai Tsing Container Terminal will be shortened from 3.5 hours to only 75 minutes," Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan said days before the opening.
The Hong Kong government has said that the improved connectivity would enhance the territory's position as a trading and logistics hub, expand its economic hinterland and boost tourism.