When Hong Kong’s country park system was developed, farmland, villages and associated areas were excluded, so villagers could continue their rural lifestyles without the restrictions imposed on country park land. But farming, already in decline, has since ground to a halt in most parts of the SAR. Villages along roads have often survived, sprouting Spanish villas which house some long-term residents as well as commuters drawn by lower rents and more tranquil settings. In more remote places, villages are often abandoned or almost so, and fields are now overgrown.
If you’ve hiked in Hong Kong, you’ll know that many of these old farming areas are special parts of the landscape—like Tai Long Wan in the Sai Kung Peninsula, and Shalotung below the Pat Sin Leng range. They’re also important for plants and animals, holding a variety of species that are rare or never found on the hillsides that dominate the country parks. And, in places including Tai Long Wan, they are the focus of disputes between developers with grand, potentially profitable schemes—variously involving luxury housing, golf courses and a “Club-Med style resort”—and an array of conservationists who want to see the areas protected for their beauty and wildlife.
While developers and conservationists wrangle, the more remote villages are generally little cared for; abandoned houses stand derelict, with evermore roofs falling in and walls collapsing. If nothing is done, they’ll eventually crumble away.
I’ve long felt that at least a handful of the better villages should be preserved, without associated modern developments. Tourism seemed a possible way; and when I heard a BBC World Service item on agri (or agro) tourism, I thought this just might be the answer; perhaps it could start at Tai Long Wan or some nearby part of the Sai Kung Peninsula. There would surely be no chance of massive profits, but the investment should be relatively small, locals may make a reasonable income, and villages, scenery and wildlife would be conserved.
I told Friends of the Earth’s former project coordinator, Dr Cheng Luk-ki, about this, and he put me in touch with Julia Gilkes, who was close to completing a masters thesis—on the potential for nature tourism in the Sai Kung country parks. After analysing ten villages, and interviewing over 300 visitors, she concluded that, “Tourism could be the key to the revival of some of the parks’ communities, as well as creating a renewed interest in the environment.” It should be community-based, she says, with local people involved in looking after the area—as in the new-fangled “protected landscapes” being created elsewhere.
While Gilkes—now an associate consultant with the environmental management division of Hong Kong Productivity Council—is gung-ho about the idea, there are potential problems. “I think the market would be rather small,” says Mason Hung, senior manager of product development at the Hong Kong Tourist Association (HKTA). “If you’re transforming village houses to commercial use, there will be procedures to go through—with licences for guest houses or hotels. There are safety and fire regulations.” But if anyone were to develop a facility that passed the regulations, Hung says the HKTA would help them promote it to visitors.
I have floated the notion of farmhouse accommodation in the Sai Kung Peninsula to three of HKTA’s regional directors, who sent generally favourable responses. I tried them after interesting a businessman in the idea. He had been considering getting involved in nature tourism and, after I had told him “renovate farmhouses for tourists—it’s bound to succeed, I think,” agreed to join me on a hike in the Sai Kung Peninsula. We saw a near-abandoned village in a superb setting, and called in at Pak Sha O, where a handful of people live in renovated houses with traditional exteriors, and modern fittings inside. The businessman concluded the plan could work, but could be costly at first.
We also halted at Lai Chi Chong, where villager Stephen Ho already runs a modest nature tourism business—on weekends and public holidays, opening his family house as a basic restaurant serving hikers and campers. The house next door, owned by his cousin, was being renovated by a group of people who had rented it, and planned to rent it as holiday accommodation. Ho said he and other villagers would like to do more to attract more visitors, but didn’t have the money.
This spring, I called Ho to ask how the business was going. Badly, he told me—numbers of campers had plummeted from over a hundred on many weekends in recent years to sometimes only around ten. After Chinese New Year, nobody had rented the house next door to his. “I’d like the Hong Kong government to do something,” he said. “They could tell people that Lai Chi Chong is a good place for camping and walking—it’s a nice area.”
Perhaps the government could help Lai Chi Chong and other places in this way. If so, this would fit in with the supposed push for nature tourism. So too would support for visitor accommodation in village houses, which just might prove a viable alternative to having some of our finest areas threatened by schemes that may reap financial rewards for some people, but would leave Hong Kong’s wildlife and scenery the poorer.
[Written for Action Asia in 2000; rural tourism still seems a potential means of helping protect HK countryside]