Community Based Tourism is broadly described as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.”
The rapid recovery of the Hong Kong tourism industry from the effects of SARS has been one of the major stories of the past ten months. Arrivals from long-haul destinations are back to pre-SARS levels, while the success of the Individual Visit Scheme under CEPA has resulted in mainland visitors now accounting for more than half the sectors revenue.
Prospects for 2004 are bright; The Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) reports that we can expect more than 20 million visitors this year, a 30% increase on 2003. The forthcoming expansion of the Individual Visit Scheme to all of Guangdong province will bring yet more mainland arrivals, with three-day shopping trips for designer brands proving to be especially popular.
Despite this undoubtedly positive news, many observers feel that potentially very lucrative forms of tourism continue to be ignored and underdeveloped in the territory. Hong Kong is still marketed primarily as a short-stay city destination, with the average length of stay being roughly three days.
A study last year conducted by the Corporate Environmental Governance Programme (CEGP) at the University of Hong Kong identified a significant demand for eco-tourism from tourists visiting Hong Kong and estimated that enticing tourists to spend one extra day to enjoy our natural attractions could increase revenues by 33%. Disappointingly, over a third of tourists questioned perceived Hong Kong purely as an urban destination.
From this we can perhaps assume that millions of tourists are not even aware that there is much to do here other than three days or shopping for designer labels in Central and Causeway Bay or perhaps a visit to Lantau to see the Buddha statue. The benefits of tourism are spread too thinly and we ought to at least make them more aware of alternative forms of tourism they can pursue.
One such alternative has been proposed by the Living Islands Movement (LIM), whose stated aim is to encourage the enrichment and animation of the outlying islands by sensitive and sustainable development for the benefit of the entire population of Hong Kong. A VISTOUR study conducted several years ago on behalf of the HKTB identified Lantau as an area with tourism development potential.
There is no doubt that Lantau, with is mountain scenery, attractive coastal areas, wildlife, and diverse flora and fauna is an attractive location for development. But LIM wants to see such development responsibly and sustainably implemented, so that tourism benefits the people of Lantau to a degree far greater than allowing the intrusion of urban models to change its unique character. LIM would like people to think about community-based-tourism (CBT) for the whole outer harbour embracing the islands. This area represents a resource of huge value. Indeed, since 1998 there have been no fewer than six government reports and documents that refer to the use of South Lantau as a place to be developed for recreation and tourism.
CBT is broadly described as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.” It requires that tourism activities are primarily developed and operated by members of the local community and that revenues from tourism remain within the local community. Respect for local culture, heritage and traditions is imperative. CBT teaches the visitor to behave responsibly and respectfully towards nature and native culture, and offers activities that give the visitor an understanding and appreciation of the area without degrading it. Most importantly of all, it is sustainable.
LIM has identified numerous activities and attractions on Lantau with high existing value for CBT, such as historical sites on Mui Wo, South Lantau beaches, Country Parks and associated trail networks. Proposed initiatives include nature classes for students and nature education centers in former village schools, the construction of a ‘nature center’ behind Silvermine Beach, photo competitions, nature tours, and a water sports centre and school. These would all be on an appropriate scale, appropriately distributed and managed, and the benefits would accrue to Lantau people.
LIM feels that, to date, the government has not appreciated the intrinsic value of Lantau and the economic wellbeing of its peoples has been ignored. CBT could be a fundamentally positive experience which provides economic benefits to local communities, protects the environment, diversifies the tourism industry, and increases tourists’ enjoyment of visiting Hong Kong.
The theme of March’s International Tourism Symposium was “Quality and Diversity”, at which Secretary for Economic Development and Labour Stephen Ip called for the broadening of the range of “tourism products” that Hong Kong has to offer and the discussion of opportunities such as green tourism and cultural heritage tourism. Surely CBT on Lantau presents such an opportunity for the government to give its official support and leadership.
LIM has identified numerous ways in which authorities can provide assistance, which include: Training local tourism service providers in guiding, language, and environmentally friendly planning and management, to ensure that facilities and activities are planned and run in ways attractive to target groups; establishing an award scheme or green seal certification scheme for environmentally friendly operators; developing brochures to promote the CBT resources of Lantau and educate visitors to the environmentally and culturally sensitive when visiting the island. These could be distributed at HKTB branches, hotels, ferry piers, restaurants, cottage rental agencies, country park visitor centers and other areas where tourists will pick them up; providing small loans or otherwise encouraging development of appropriate new types of facilities and attractions; and finally, helping local tourism operators organize into professional groups.
Numerous stumbling blocks remain however. It is often said that “tourists spoil tourism”, and there are concerns that an influx of numbers could harm the environment. However, if the businesses of tourism in an area are distributed amongst the community it therefore follows that there are more people to ensure that tourists do not become destructive. This is enhanced by the knowledge of the people in the community that they have to protect the environment for their own interests – in other words, automatic accountability.
Misunderstandings over the nature of CBT and eco-tourism also exist within the indigenous community. The underlying problem is that they have been neglected for years economically with the result that they can only see prosperity coming by way of concrete and urban-type development.
More worrying is the proposed prison in the Outer Harbour off Lantau. Imagine making a trip around the islands to see the natural beauty and culture only to find the area is dominated by a prison, a constant reminder of the darker side of life. LIM”s aim is to identify the outer harbour around Lantau, Peng Chau, Lamma and Cheung Chau as a tourist environment. Building a prison in the middle of it hardly contributes to that and will probably destroy it.
Speaking in February at the “Sustainable Development of Cities” conference, HKTB chairwoman Selina Chow commented that developing Hong Kong’s heritage and environment in a sustainable way “presents some especially difficult challenges, which require not only continued commitment from the government and the tourism industry but also the community’s greater understanding and support for the value of preserving their heritage.” LIM seconds this view and believes that Hong Kong is ready to take on those challenges.
There is so much more to our city than 3 days of shopping and urban attractions. With official support, leadership and vision, alternative forms of tourism in Hong Kong, like those proposed by LIM, have the potential to benefit us all.
Eric Spain is the secretary of the living islands movement.
Jonathan Hills was [when this document was written] a researcher on the Corporate Environmental Governance Programme (CEGP) at the University of Hong Kong.