Hong Kong Wetland Park is a curious place – habitats small and visitor centre immense.
I headed to the Hong Kong Wetland Park a few days ago, for my first visit since it fully opened. It's a place I've long been critical of – even though I had some involvement in creating educational videos, but I figured it may be interesting/fun to go with my wife, two-year old son, and a friend and his son.
The visit indeed proved interesting, but didn't raise my opinion of the park thing – which to me seemed surreal: as if a bunch of designers who aren't conservationists had been given a vast budget and allowed to do as they pleased, with only a small nod to actual wetlands and conservation.
[March 2014 update: re-visited the outdoor areas of the park, which have improved with age, partly thanks to planted shrubs growing. Still a curious place, way too separate from Deep Bay for my liking. And we ignored the humungous visitor centre.
As if to confirm its weirdness, the park reportedly advertises in the MTR with the slogan: "Unroll the Hong Kong diverse green temptations".
But, at least on the latest visit the staff proved helpful, giving us a late, impromptu guided tour, as I explained I was working on a travel piece about Deep Bay.]
Just look at the picture below, from a theatre in the visitor centre: is this like somewhere in a wetland area, or more like a set from Star Trek?
Hong Kong Wetland Park supposedly blends tourism and conservation
The park evidently originated with good intentions – as a mitigation measure for destruction of extensive fishponds to make way for Tin Shui Wai (lately dubbed the "City of Sadness", for social ills). But then, it somehow ballooned into a grandiose millennium project – supposedly for tourism as well as conservation.
And, with cost – I've heard – of HK$500 million, it certainly didn't come cheap. That's vast money compared to amounts spent elsewhere in and around Deep Bay wetland – which the Wetland Park is within and yet separate from, and is an internationally important wetland that includes the renowned Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve.
Look at this for an entrance! Once you've bought your ticket to the Wetland Park, you walk in along this road, into the vast visitor centre. My wife says it reminded her of a Chinese style grave! Or maybe there's something North Korean about it – what do you think?
Note that this was on a Saturday, late morning; I've heard of very large numbers of people visiting, but there were no crowds this day, even though the weather was fine. (I've heard, too, that fair proportion of the visitors were from Tin Shui Wai, right next door: hardly making this a standout tourist attraction!)
We first headed for the outdoors part – walking through the centre, and left. Just outside is an enclosure with Pui Pui, the "Yuen Long Crocodile", which found fame while on the lam in the nearby Shan Pui River.
Soon after Pui Pui, there's this walkway past an artificial stream, and between pools. Looks nice, but to me – used to Mai Po, where at this time of year even the walk-in is busy with birds, such as egrets and cormorants flying overhead, trees lively with songbirds – this seemed remarkably sterile. Park-like, and artificial; reminiscent of a quirky movie like The Truman Show or Stepford Wives, but giving no indication this is beside/in one of key wetlands in Asia. [Early 2014 update: with more vegetation, this stream appears almost natural. But still an odd thing to have in this area.]
Here's a view including Tin Shui Wai. The park building here is an outdoor classroom, where schoolkids can learn about freshwater wetland life, including by looking at insects etc. Looks good, but won't have devoured much of that monster budget.
Close to yet insulated from Deep Bay
We went into one of the park's handful of hides for watching for actual wetland wildlife. It's a grand, three storey structure, yet is too far back from habitat to offer really good views of birds – especially for non birdwatchers who are unused to telescopes. Plus, the habitat is not controlled by the park: this is a creek flowing into Deep Bay.
I've quite often walked along the road that crosses the creek here – and over the bridge you can see in this photo; it skirts mangroves, with Deep Bay mudflats close by, and was very good for seeing birds, until the mangroves grew too tall and dense. It's only a couple of hundred metres or so away, yet there's no path to this road – no access to Deep Bay itself – from the park. I earlier emailed HK Tourism Commission suggesting such a footpath; had response saying they rather liked the idea. I was even invited to a meeting, in which I was told of difficulties: fishpond owners would want too much money, etc. No such path was built; and to get to the road, at Tsim Bei Tsui, you must travel some kilometres by road.
So, visitors to the Wetland Park are within a stone's throw of major part of one of main wetlands in Asia, but are kept away, insulated, from it.
We then followed a wooden walkway through mangroves: it was ok, tho rather short. Again, not exciting if you know Mai Po – and if you therefore have some idea of how money could have been spent at the Wetland Park and within Deep Bay in an aim to help people experience Hong Kong's very own world class wetland. (We're told the Wetland Park is world class; but by what criteria is hard to say: not for numbers of wetland birds it supports!)
Small but top-notch habitat
Past the mangrove walk was hide overlooking the Mudflat – a small area of top notch wetland habitat; tidal I believe. Maybe the water and mud here look nasty and dirty to designer types, but they're clearly rich in wildlife.
There were fair numbers of birds here, including a roosting group of Black-faced Spoonbills: with a world population of little more than 2300 (in 2010), this is Hong Kong's star bird. Also herons, egrets, Little Ringed Plovers; a Common Kingfisher landed on post near the hide.
If only a goodly chunk of that HK$500 million had been spent on creating habitat like this…
Soulless interior and quirky exhibits
This is in the middle of the visitor centre. Utterly soulless. Maybe the design team included a robot or two?
There are exhibitions inside the centre. You can follow a route, which quickly arrives at this arctic area. Looks great – you can imagine the designers feeling well pleased with themselves for this, and figure this helped the park win its several awards (including from something called the Urban Land Institute).
But does this really have much to do with wetlands? Arctic Fox, Caribou and Snowy Owl – seen in foreground here – aren't really wetland species.
Then, if you really want to to have an arctic display (and remember, this meant spending exorbitant sums here that could surely have been used for enhancing the existing major wetland just outside, or even helping wetland areas around Hong Kong…), why not have stronger links to Hong Kong? – such as, highlight Hong Kong winter birds that nest in the Arctic.
Next up – an artificial mangrove area, with some living plants/animals including crocodiles. Yes, artificially created mangroves, with one of South China's main mangrove areas right on the doorstep.
There's something rather futuristic, I think, in exhibits like this. If habitats vanish, we might have little but things like this through which we can experience what the earth has lost. But for the time being, when there's a mangrove area here…
I know, there's that walkway through the mangrove; but there is potential for far more in this area, to give visitors a rewarding experience, whilst not causing major disturbance to wildlife, and even enhancing existing habitats. I believe that experiencing actual wetlands, wildlife that's wild, will do far more for visitors' conservation awareness than seeing exhibits that might as well be on the moon.
Again, though, such exhibits were surely wonderful for the designers!
Inside the world's weirdest wetland park?
But if the artificial habitat exhibits seem odd, this theatre was downright surreal. It's dedicated to humanity and wetlands; notably our interactions with them.
You can imagine the designers drooling over their drawings of this, and fairly approaching orgasm on seeing this theatre realised. "Daahhhlling, it's just divine!"
"Mmm, think of the money we can reap from the Hong Kong government!"
There's a circular screen as ceiling, with movies projected onto it, showing images of our earth and then zooming in for life at and beside wetlands around the world. Ooohh…
Supposedly, then, giving an educational experience to visitors. Yet the film is in three identical segments, as if in a kaleidoscope – makes it viewable from all round, but odd; and the music we heard was soporific New Age stuff: small wonder two or three people were snoozing away on the seats.
On one of the curving walls of the theatre is large picture echoing Chinese landscape paintings, with some wetland, many people. Move a monitor screen along and up and down this (there are mounted screens you can move), then stop it anywhere, and can see an animated scene with cartoon like people moving about. Again, designers surely drooled over this – but oh, if only money from this had been spent on habitats…
By the theatre is a side room with – wait for it – a motion simulator! Yes, Ocean Park has one, and so has the Wetland Park (which isn't billed as a theme park). Albeit this proved far smaller, with just six seats; and with a short, rather fuzzy film about cycles involving molecule of water – including rushing along a stream and being peed on by a cow [I kid you not].
Also somewhere along the way was a room with some exhibits re Hong Kong wetlands. Some time ago, I helped cameraman Michael Pitts film some wildlife etc. I believe the footage is used here. I also wrote educational text. We worked with a tiddly budget by wildlife filming standards – presumably as so much of the park's mega budget was hoovered up by fancy gizmos and space age designs.
Is there a wetland nearby?
The last of the exhibit rooms is this one, with an emphasis on wetland issues. Again looks like designers have run rampant; again seems utterly disconnected from reality – heck, there aren't even any windows. You might as well be in Cyberport, or somewhere in deep space.
If educating people about wetland issues was really a concern, they could have done a great deal in and around the park: Deep Bay faces a multitude of threats, including encroachment by massive development, pollution, habitat loss…
An idea is applied here that surely seemed good on paper: visitors can act as tv reporters, reporting on problems wetlands face. After minor hassle registering as a reporter; I moved on to terminals where you can try challenges, try reporting on issues. These challenges come from viewing images on computer screens – rather like computer games. But they were very basic compared to most computer games; I looked around an industrial plant, and couldn't do a lot: not a bit like Tomb Raider, as no guards came to shoot me! (indeed, there were no people to be seen at all).
I noticed here that one of the ways we can help wetlands is through nature tourism. I agree with this.
Yet the Wetland Park seems to me an insult to nature tourism, and an insult to Deep Bay. Yes, claimed to be ecotourism – yet to what extent does the park benefit people who live in and around Deep Bay? I saw nothing suggesting there's any aim to help fish pond owners, say; you can't buy their products within the park (there is a shop in the centre, but had a rather twee mix of products; doesn't look like it has any imperative of being economically successful. No local crafts that I noticed, even the collection of books on sale was very thin).
Bah! I'd better stop; just too annoyed by this place costing HK$500 million, when we have areas – including nearby parts of Deep Bay – that could really use far smaller amounts of cash; the money could have been allocated far more judiciously, still building a grand visitor centre but with great habitats, help for Deep Bay people and so on, as well. Could have built something that is truly world-class for conservation and tourism, rather than something that's truly, truly weird.
See also forum thread here – Hong Kong Wetland Park – Wise Use of Money??, which includes some email correspondence I've had w the park manager, leading to my sending some suggestions for changes (not just being negative!).
HONG KONG’S WETLAND PARK – A CONSULTANT’S TALE An anonymous consultant blogs about work leading up to creation of the Wetland Park, including claims of apparently being lone voice in showing area was of ecological value. Weird but not wonderful consulting in "action".