Rural Visitor Numbers Surging

If you go down to the woods today, you may find a big surprise, with every hiker that every there was gathered there. Well, not quite every hiker, but some places in the countryside can be crowded nowadays, perhaps with queues waiting to start on trails.

It was not always thus. I've been birdwatching and hiking in Hong Kong for three decades, and have surely seen a major upturn in numbers of people heading to the outdoors. Looking back, I remember wondering at Hong Kong people being seemingly disinterested in the countryside, and becoming one of perhaps five or so bird photographers here, which contrasts hugely with the hundreds nowadays. While I don’t clearly recall trails always being quiet, I walked Dragon’s Back when the path there was barely known, visited Tung Ping Chau when the cafes still had only a handful tables, rather than seating perhaps a hundred or more as nowadays. And, in my memory, there were no hassles like queuing for buses after outings.

To me, the turning point came during the SARS outbreak in 2003, when it suddenly seemed far less enticing to mingle with shopping mall crowds. After a day at Tai Long Wan, Sai Kung, my wife and I joined a long queue for buses, waiting till maybe four buses had arrived and filled up before we could head home. And I've noticed marked increases in visitors to places like Shui Hau and Yi O on Lantau, after publicity in printed and social media.

But are these impressions correct? To find out, I sought data, and contacted several outdoor enthusiasts regarding their views and experiences. While this article is hardly a master's thesis, the information gleaned sheds light on the changing situation.

Lies, damned lies, and visitor numbers?

I've visited country parks umpteen times, yet never once noticed anyone counting me as I arrived. Even so, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) produces annual tallies for country park visitors. As expected, these show a marked increase soon after the country park system was established – soaring from 2.7 million in 1977 to 8.8 million in 1987, and then climbing to 12 million in 2006.

But then, something curious happened, with the official tallies essentially flatlining, remaining stuck in a range between 11.1 and 13.6 million, with 13.3 million visitors in 2015/16. Lest you wonder how these numbers were arrived at by the unseen counters, the AFCD noted via email that they were, "estimated based on sampling in some strategic and representative locations in different periods of time" and "may vary hinging on a combination of factors such as the number of rainy days, hot days and cold days of the year."

Without further details, this could still leave a suspicion that devising the figures involves substantial application of the ancient art of guessology. And as for the flatlining ... well, that would seem convenient for advocates of building housing in country park areas, who might be only too happy at apparent evidence the rise in visitor numbers has stalled.

Hiking group membership surges

Yet the lack of significant change over the past decade is at odds with the experiences of people including the experts contacted. For instance, SK Shum Si-ki, founder of Hong Kong Hiking Meetup, noted, "There is not only a surge in our membership, but number of hikers in general. I do observe a uniformly increasing interest in hiking."

So far this year, about 26,750 hikers joined Hong Kong Hiking Meetup's 1750 scheduled hikes. And participation is not just during weekends and public holidays. "There are more people joining our weekday hikes than in old times," Shum says via email. "We schedule about three hikes a day on weekdays and 12 hikes a day on weekends, and there never enough hikes to meet the demand."

Ryan Cheng, owner of RC Outfitters stores and a keen hiker and trail runner, reported that, "We do see an increase of number of people buying hiking shoes, clothing and gear from us since October. We still have over 10% sales growth compared with sales for Oct and Nov 2015. We see a particularly bigger sales growth(>20%) in buying items like professional hiking shoes and socks and hiking poles. We also see that there are more and more hikers joining trail running."

Nicola Newbery, chair of Friends of Hoi Ha, sent a presentation focusing on issues arising from crowds arriving at Hoi Ha, a village on the north coast of the Sai Kung Peninsula. Though a road was build in the 1970s, it remained peaceful until 2003, when a combination of the SARS outbreak and WWF Hong Kong highlighting the neighbouring marine park spurred a "visitor explosion".

The early hiker avoids the crowds

Paul Zimmerman, founder of Save Our Country Parks, emailed with some personal observations on people heading outdoors:

"While flying [paragliding] recently over Dragon’s Back [southeast Hong Kong Island] – a thick queue people back to front from one end to the other – and long queues for the buses to take people home. This is a massive change since I first started flying in the early 90s, when there was hardly a soul on the ridge, not even when the weather was nice like now, during the autumn.

When walking my dogs at High Junk Peak, I have to make sure I’m out and back before 8.30 to avoid having difficulties passing people on the narrow trails with my four dogs. Again, a significant change since I moved out here [to the eastern New Territories] some 9 years ago."

In a pithier comment, Paul Etherington, owner of Kayak-and-Hike Ltd, similarly remarked, "Always need to time excursions into the hills very early to avoid buses and large groups."

Garbage in, sewage out

Of course, there are downsides to the upturn in visitor numbers.

Late on weekends and public holidays, long queues for buses can be typical at popular places, including Hoi Ha - where Newbery comments, "We still don’t have the infrastructure to cope with large tourist coaches – there is bedlam on a busy day. All that extra sewage, percolating into and polluting the marine park waters, as the government refuses to give Hoi Ha a mini sewage treatment works!"

Zimmerman added that an increase in people increases the waste found along trails: "It is my sense that more people care too, but there are ample who leave trash along the paths."

Etherington observed, "When I do get out for a trail run it seem trails are well used and there's an increase of erosion, and trail tagging – with fluoro pink nylon! The usual disrespect at country park BBQ sites."

A healthy increase

But there are upsides too.

"I am delighted to see the country parks become more like city parks – i.e. people come and go more often," noted Zimmerman. "It is healthy. It means though that we may have to do more to ensure the parks can handle the volume, including fixing trails (with stones or wood), creating new trails for bicycles, allowing and enabling sports activities – and negotiating ‘good behaviour’ with the various sports enthusiasts."

While if you want to head for the outdoors in order to get away from the madding grounds, remember that there are still quiet places. For instance, Zimmerman writes, "Plover Cove is less trodden than parks closer to the city and frequent public transport." Other areas you might find yourself almost or seemingly utterly alone even during holidays include southwest Lantau, trails away from the "star" routes like the Maclehose Trail, and.... Ah but that would be telling. You'll have to do a little research, read some more articles here, for hints on quiet places.

But at least there are still less popular places where you can relax, and find solitude. While even if you head for busy trails, you can still enjoy respite from the city, and marvel that a place like Hong Kong has a myriad natural wonders right on the doorstep.

Written for the South China Morning Post.

Martin Williams

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