Hong Kong style ecotourism weird n rather sad
Tung Ping Chau is one of my favourite places in Hong Kong. But while I enjoyed the scenery during a recent visit – such as mudstone cliffs and crags, beaches, and quiet hamlets amidst woodland – there was sadness too. Sadness because the hamlets were too quiet, with the few small stores that usually sold food and drink to visitors all closed. On some buildings and at several sites around the island there were big yellow banners with bold red writing complaining about government actions that had led to stores closing and caused other grievances. Some trails had even been blocked or partly blocked as part of the protests, which had lasted throughout summer.
Though it’s hard for an outsider to discover exactly what is happening with the disputes affecting Tung Ping Chau, it seems they partly stem from government officials rather zealously applying rules that were designed for city businesses. For instance, I was told by some villagers – who return during weekends and holidays rather than live there full time – that they have been forbidden from using Tung Ping Chau water. This is collected rainwater, which had nurtured several generations of islanders, and was used in serving visitors for the past 30 years, yet now it is considered unsafe. [I've had some correspondence with govt departments re issues; may post below.]
The situation seemed absurd to me. After all, most of Hong Kong is supplied with treated water from the polluted Dongjiang. I sent emails to various people including Chief Executive CY Leung, remarking that the Tung Ping Chau saga recalled officialdom impacting dai pai dongs and other small businesses: not so wealthy nor politically powerful people were becoming snared in red tape. I hoped a satisfactory resolution would be possible.
It took a few days, but I eventually received an anonymous reply from within the Home Affairs Department. This only covered an unlicensed guesthouse that had been “spotted”. After a follow up from me, another anonymous email said, “We will let you have the reply soon.” [Had some more info since.]
While awaiting this reply, perhaps from an actual human being, it’s worth reflecting on Tung Ping Chau – and on ecotourism in Hong Kong. I hugely like ecotourism in the definition quoted by the International Ecotourism Society: "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." This could surely help many of Hong Kong’s rural areas – benefitting wildlife, cultural heritage, and local people – as well as people throughout Hong Kong.
The word “ecotourism” is certainly used in Hong Kong as if it’s a good thing. But Hong Kong style ecotourism can be very weird. For instance, consider the Hong Kong Geopark, which includes Tung Ping Chau. There’s now an official Geopark hotel, yet it’s a big shiny edifice in southwest Hong Kong Island, relatively far from any Geopark site.
In 2009, I picked up a tourist leaflet titled “Quintessence of Hong Kong Nature”. This covered three places to visit; but can you guess which were supposedly the ultimate in natural Hong Kong?
Maybe you are thinking of somewhere like Mai Po Marshes, Hoi Ha Wan, Tai Po Kau Forest, or outstanding country parks. Wrong! The three places were Ocean Park, Ngong Ping 360, and the Wetland Park.
Yes, really: a theme park with captive animals, a fake “village” whose construction involved damage to a natural stream, and a Wetland Park featuring a gigantic, rather sterile visitor centre combined with small fragments of wildlife habitats – somehow billed as a “world-class ecotourism attraction”.
Some of the “ecotours” operated for local people seem decidedly strange, too, sometimes with leaders using megaphones to herd people around while providing minimal information. Tours have reportedly descended on Lung Mei in recent weeks, with participants taking away and killing marine life, oblivious to the classic ecotourism credo: “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”.
But does it matter that the ecotourism concept has become so twisted here? Should anyone care that a bunch of islanders who are not even fully resident any more can no longer serve noodles and tea on far-flung Tung Ping Chau?
I believe it does matter, as ecotourism could have a role to play in protecting rural areas, which seem subject to an unrelenting assault across Hong Kong. With small scale community tourism local people can operate businesses that generate income to help maintain houses, sustaining lifestyles and ensuring local people find value in protecting the natural environment along with rural heritage. It just may help safeguard places against waves of development including luxury housing, golf courses, and columbariums.
Well, maybe this is just a dream I cling to; I’ve been trying to push ecotourism for some years now, with precious little success. As you can tell, I believe changes are sorely needed. Among them: recognise Hongkongers are our main ecotourists, appreciate that rules for city places may not be so appropriate in rural areas, encourage and help people who work on ventures that truly deserve to be called ecotourism.
If any of these ideas seem worthwhile, it’s time to start making the changes, before too many more of our rural treasures are trashed. And a great place to begin lies across the sea to the east, on small but splendid Tung Ping Chau.
Written for Ming Pao Weekly; translated version [below] published on 1 December 2012