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Opinion | Long-awaited South Lantau ecotourism plan must strike right balance

Opinion | Long-awaited South Lantau ecotourism plan must strike right balance
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The government’s latest proposals to develop South Lantau as a tourism and recreation destination are very much a case of better late than never.

Last week, the Development Bureau announced plans to make more of the natural resources of the four rural areas around Pui O, Cheung Sha, Shui Hau and Shek Pik. The objective is to create an “eco-recreation corridor”, which will include such features as campsites, a sports and recreation centre, a walkway, heritage trail, an education centre and an adventure holiday area with rope climbing. A two-month public consultation exercise has begun.

The plans have clearly been in the works for some time and are not a reaction to the recent suggestion by Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Xia Baolong that the city needs to be more creative in its tourism development plans. Still, they are a timely response.

Lawmakers are generally supportive but have bemoaned the slow progress over the decades. There have been similar concept plans and public consultation exercises at various times since 2004, most recently in 2016. Even the latest plans have no implementation timetable.

Proposals to develop South Lantau go back further than many of our legislators may realise. Forty years ago, my first posting in the government was as assistant district officer of islands, in charge of development, and even then we were floating some of the same ideas.

At that time, development opportunities were much more limited as access to the southern side of the island was essentially only by ferry from Central. There was a narrow winding road down from Tung Chung to the south side, but it could not handle significant traffic.

The situation changed radically starting in 1998 with the opening of the airport at Chek Lap Kok, the development of the adjacent new town and the construction of the Tung Chung MTR line. Substantial improvements have also been made to the road south from Tung Chung to Pui O, permitting creation of a much more extensive public transport network, though access by private car is still restricted.

Bear in mind that, by this time, more than half of Hong Kong’s population lived in the New Territories. Suddenly, the effective catchment area of South Lantau became much larger. I recently took a tourist bus from Tung Chung to Tai O, which years ago would have been quite impossible.

So where do we go now on South Lantau? The main things legislators want to see are a costed indicative timetable and some specific projects being implemented.

Andrew Lam Siu-lo said most of the facilities now promised should have been completed between 2017 and last year. Ben Chan Han-pan supported him and Tony Tse Wai-chuen urged the construction of basic hardware facilities as quickly as possible. These requests are reasonable.

In response, Undersecretary for Development David Lam Chi-man promised to add some details to the outline and start some projects within the next two years.

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As work proceeds on developing South Lantau, we are sure to experience a classic conundrum: the more attractive you make a place, the more crowded it will become, making it less attractive. More visitors mean a greater demand for access and transport facilities; improving them will have an environmental impact and attract still more visitors.

We are seeing a version of this situation in the Sai Kung district. Po Pin Chau island off the coast there is in Hong Kong’s Global Geopark and famous for its vertical cliffs. Hikers have, over the years, found that the nearby headland at Fa Shan provides an excellent view of the scenery and have developed a series of informal footpaths and viewing locations.

The Agriculture and Fisheries Department, concerned about the environmental implications and public safety, has started a project to construct a viewing platform. This will, incidentally, tend to centralise the access routes into a main footpath.

Concern is already being expressed that the improved access and viewing facilities will attract more people to the area, and some sections of the path are rather close to a cliff edge.

Construction of the Po Pin Chau Viewing Platform and associated hiking facilities near East Dam, High Island Reservoir, in Sai Kung East Country Park started last month and is expected to be completed by the end of the year. Photo: Dickson Lee

We can expect a range of views to be submitted in the public consultation exercise for South Lantau. For every visitor who prefers the uncrowded atmosphere, fresh air and beautiful scenery, there will be a shopkeeper thinking of all the extra customers and a taxi driver dreaming of all the additional fares. It will then be up to the civil servants involved, and their political masters, to try to strike the right balance.

Other candidate locations for creative ideas should surely include Po Toi Island, which I first visited more than 40 years ago. It was the site of a key episode in John Le Carre’s famous spy novel The Honourable Schoolboy.

I remember also a hill in the northern New Territories which had a coin-in-the-slot telescope. Insert a coin (was it HK$1?) and you got a few minutes to get a good view over the boundary into “red China”. Whether the telescope is still there (does anybody know?), the view has certainly changed but the location would surely be an attraction for history buffs.

Let’s hope the private sector can think of more bright ideas both here and in South Lantau. I’m just happy someone might soon be digging into an old drawer to pull out the plans we made 40 years ago.

Mike Rowse is an independent commentator

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