Hong Kong Eco-tourism Stifled

Maybe "eco-tourism" conjures visions of bucolic days in the outdoors, enjoying dolphins, birds, hikes, or even relaxing meals in small restaurants in beautiful surroundings. I wish it were so pleasant in practice. Writing here, on my experiences in Hong Kong I have a few tales to relate that aren’t for the faint-hearted – if you want to skip them, note that I close with a few recommendations for tourism officials and companies.

First, a little background info on me. I’m British, and since my teens have loved birding. Whilst at university, I led a couple of expeditions to study birds at Beidaihe, east of Beijing – and after these I decided to live in Hong Kong, and try to do something for conservation in parts of east Asia, especially (at first) Beidaihe. I returned to Beidaihe for more surveys, and helped launch eco-tourism to the town.

Seeing “wild” places being damaged – and reading of many problems facing the global environment – I figured eco-tourism held some hopes for protecting wild places, so people could make some money whilst keeping these places intact. In Hong Kong, too, I occasionally led birding tours, though I focused more on writing articles, taking photos, covering wildlife and conservation when I could.

Attempting ecotourism in Hong Kong: quite an experience!

After suggestions from the Hong Kong Tourist Association (now Hong Kong Tourism Board), I organised some Hong Kong hiking tours, though with few takers. Then, I was asked to become chairman of a new travel company, which would have “green tourism” as the theme. This seemed worth a try; would be only part-time. I’d noticed that some tours to Mai Po Marshes were poorly run, and suggested we launch a Mai Po tour. The Mai Po Wetland Experience was born: I called it “experience” as we aimed for far more than a walk around the marshes; we’d give our clients the best wildlife-related experience of Mai Po on the day they visited.

With some local birders and me as guides, we ran tours that proved very successful in terms of customer satisfaction. With us, people saw great bird flocks, beautiful birds like kingfishers, and globally rare species such as Black-faced Spoonbill. But though even first-time birdwatchers enjoyed the “Experience” – I pitched it at the kind of person who enjoys the National Geographic and Discovery channels – it was tough getting enough people; we lost money. With the other founders’ silly notions of making lots of money via the Internet proving unfounded, the company folded.

Believing it sad to stop the Mai Po tour – clients liked it, birders could make a little money, and it brought a little money to the World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong – I talked to three of the main guides, and asked if they’d be interested in forming a new company. Two of them were, and we launched FirstStep Nature Tours (the “firststep” coming from a journey of a thousand li beginning with a single step - Laotzi).

Again, it was tough going; but we expected that, and hoped things would improve: the HKTB was about to promote us, and I’d learned that Hong Kong Dolphinwatch was growing in popularity: if increasing numbers of people were paying to see pink dolphins, surely we could boost numbers wanting to see Mai Po and its birdlife.

Hong Kong Travel Agents Ordinance doesn't mean what it says

Then – Bam! – we were slammed by new legislation about travel agents. Or anyway, we were slammed by what we were told about the new legislation: we were told the legislation meant FirstStep was a travel agent, and we needed a licence. And the various necessary criteria were impossible for us: we didn’t have money, didn’t have a manager with at least two years’ experience in the travel industry, and so on.

I had a look at the legislation, the Travel Agents Ordinance, on the Internet. Here, I learned that a company that obtains, “sightseeing or visits to local places of interest” as a service for visitors is not a travel agent if it is “the owner or operator of the service”. So, FirstStep was clearly not a travel agent.

If only this were so. We were told the ordinance does not mean what it says: to not be a travel agent, we would have to own or operate the place of interest, i.e. Mai Po. Dolphinwatch then-owner Bill Leverett was even told he was a “travel agent” as he didn’t operate the sea!

Calls for reason and commonsense fell on deaf ears, and we were stuck, unable to obtain a licence. And we only wanted a licence as it meant we could be promoted by the HKTB – which had dropped us like hot coals as soon as the word went out that we needed a licence.

Months passed, and eventually – prompted by a newspaper article on our plight? – the toughest barriers to our obtaining a licence were dropped; with the proviso that we couldn’t book hotel rooms: that is, we could obtain a licence as a travel agent, but we couldn’t operate as one.

We went through the necessary rigmarole for a licence, paid the fees involved, and by the start of the latest birding season, last autumn (Mai Po is only good from around October to early May), we were ready to go, with full HKTB backing. With my other work quieter, I had some time for promoting the company, leading tours and so on, though by now as something of a one-man band.

Though we again saw wonderful birds, and had great responses from clients, bookings were slack. When Mai Po was closed during the bird flu outbreak, we maybe saved some money because we stopped loss-making tours. (I took some groups to nearby Tsim Bei Tsui.) Even people who did join us were mostly on business, or visiting friends in Hong Kong.

People won't opt for ecotourism in Hong Kong when it isn't promoted

I concluded we were suffering partly as there are so few non-mainland tourists in Hong Kong; also because promotions of Hong Kong's image ignore or almost ignore the variety here: a much-ballyhooed advert featuring Jackie Chan was dull, cliché-ridden. When annual bills started arriving in April, I had a brief discussion with the two co-directors who had stuck with FirstStep, and we decided to cut our losses, and close.

It saddens me to even write this. We’ve done some great tours – with impressive feedback; and since received email saying “You are an asset to the tourism industry.” Hong Kong has huge amounts to offer: Mai Po boasts world-class birding, but there are also world-class trails, as well as magic scenery, opportunities for action sports, other wildlife including the dolphins; all within easy reach of a vibrant city (with some help from friends, I hope to cover a good spectrum of these on this site - it's not just for griping!).

Yet, the conditions for developing eco-tourism are poor: clumsy regulations, unimaginative Hong Kong image promotions and the obsession with mainland Chinese shoppers are key reasons I believe (a recent survey found that only 10% of visitors come to Hong Kong for sightseeing – partly because so little of Hong Kong is promoted??). Perhaps foolishly, this hasn’t deterred me from trying to still promote eco-tourism in Hong Kong, including through the recently established Sustainable Tourism Taskforce.

So, what are those recommendations I mentioned?

Firstly, to officials involved in Hong Kong tourism:

We hear that Hong Kong is promoting eco-tourism. If this is true, roll up your sleeves, learn about eco-tourism, and promote and nurture it. If untrue, say so, or keep quiet.

If true, you can do a lot to help, such as:

* Cut the red tape. Worldwide, eco-tourism companies tend to be tiny at start-up; even some of the best remain small in terms of manpower. You don’t take an infant that’s learning to walk and give him a backpack of rocks to wear.
* Promote Hong Kong as a varied destination. This is a wonderful place, with a lot to offer. You don’t need clichés; just get to know the best of Hong Kong – not just the places with the most powerful businesses – and promote it, tell the world of the variety.
* If you’re considering requirements for eco-tour guides, remember we don’t need robots; don’t test for regurgitation of lifeless facts.
* Better still, emulate Singapore, which has launched Specialised Tourist Guide Licenses (link to info download here), allowing experts to take small tours without major maafan.

And to travel companies:

* You might find that people who can help with eco-tourism can be cranky (who, me?!) – but they’re also enthusiastic, dedicated people; we have some talented individuals in Hong Kong.
* Be careful about pigeon-holing eco-tourism as a niche market. Those Discovery and National Geographic channels are very popular; very few people will visit Hong Kong solely for birding (say), but many more might be interested in a Mai Po trip, or a hike or a dolphinwatch, as part of a holiday that could include shopping, dining, whatever.
* A survey by Professor Richard Welford of the University of Hong Kong has revealed that Hong Kong visitors express interest in eco-tourism, and a willingness to pay more for it than for regular tours. Conclusion: you can make money. (Someday - maybe....)

DocMartin

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