With Few Visitors, Mai Po Marshes reserve tries for some outrageous entry fees

The WWF Hong Kong managed Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve is undergoing an infrastructure upgrade, with a HK$347 million grant from the Hong Kong Jockey Club – Hooray!

But the reserve is hard to visit for most people, and tries charging some outrageous entry fees – Boo!

Below, a little on a recent bad experience I had in dealing with Mai Po reserve, after perhaps three decades of bringing visitors – including from overseas, and some school groups – with no issues.

Posting not with aim of being a personal sob story, but highlighting policy that seems very wrong and misguided, with money grabbing attempt[s] in lieu of being able to collect reasonable income from higher numbers of visitors. See also article I’ve done: Mai Po Marshes Upgrade Project: Big Money, Few Visitors.

Now, I’m not too sure about origins of trying to seek extremely high entry fees, but I rather think it fits with the MASSIVE hike in WWF Hong Kong’s annual membership fee from HK$400 to HK$1800 per year from 2021 onwards [cf £60 – under HK$600 – at present for WWF UK; same for UK’s RSPB, which also includes issues of award-winning magazine, discount on reserve entry fees].

Mai Po sought HK$3350 for my entry as a guide for a visiting birder!

Anyhoo, that tale I promised.

Brief background: beginning in the late 1980s, I have been involved in nature tourism to Mai Po – bringing groups of birders, individuals visiting overseas, and some school groups to the reserve, to show people the wonders of Mai Po, especially birds. Though at one point I was involved in a very small nature tour company, aiming for regular tours to the reserve (never really viable), these were overall only occasional outings for me. Brought some revenue for the reserve; I also believe goodwill of visitors was worthwhile; the more Mai Po “fans” the better.

While I used to have my own, individual annual permit for Mai Po [from the AFCD – Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department], I let this lapse, as I rarely visited Mai Po without tours, and when taking visitors it was easy to include my name on the list given for the group permit rented from WWF at Mai Po [also obtained from AFCD].

All went swimmingly: I’d email re a booking, and provided a permit was available, I’d bring people, use the permit, return the permit, and pay per head of visitors. Nothing too huge, price wise; by time of my last tour pre-Covid, the fee was HK$190 per head in peak birding season.

So when a birder planning a visit to Hong Kong asked if I would guide him, I contacted Mai Po, anticipating much the same arrangement. How wrong I was!

Had lengthy back and forth via WhatsApp; just an attempt to summarise here:

For the visiting birdwatcher, as coming from overseas, entry fee would be HK$250. So higher than before, but not exorbitant.

But the problem was for me:

From the Visitor Experience Team…For HK people, they can only enter the reserve by using their own permits or joining our guided tours. If you really want to accompany [client], it seems the only option is joining the 6 people 5-hour tour

I explained how things were before, but was told not possible now, should not have been like that; got this:

In fact I understand why they have to stay with the rules…in case someone asks “Why Martin Williams is treated differently?”, how should they answer?

As to this question, not difficult; I briefly answered, and was so annoyed I later wrote a fuller response, which is below in case you’re interested. And I don’t think this should apply only to me; why not have a roster of experienced guides who can readily bring people at fair prices, provided permits are available?

I then got a message about being able to join a 5-hour tour; and yet could go anywhere we wanted, with no need for a guide. Perfect, it seemed; I figured this would mean HK$250 each…

A world record high price for a basic nature reserve entry fee?

Outrageous visitor fee charge for Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve

But then, on Sunday morning before the tour to happen on Tuesday, got an email saying “nice to e-meet you” with a link to an online invoice for HK$3600 for a 6-person tour. Never mind there would be just two of us, and this effectively meant HK$3350 for my entry, as client only had to pay HK$250. I responded with a flurry of missives, encountering brick wall; and included the comment:

Just wondering if HK$3350 is a world record for a reserve entry fee.

I gave various examples of wetland reserve entry fees elsewhere in the world; all were lower than even HK$250 [see the article I linked to re few visitors].

Of course, I was also in touch with my client for the day – after all, he would have to stump up the ridiculous fee. He wasn’t impressed, asking “Is it grift?”, but was so keen to visit Mai Po he would pay anyway, but be very unhappy about it.

It also happened that my client is an ambassador for the RSPB in the UK; after checking with me if might be worth contacting them, he emailed the RSPB CEO that Sunday, and also that day she emailed Mai Po reserve, requesting they help with the visit by him and his guide. Also, he was hoping to do an article, including early connections between RSPB and Mai Po [notably as a former RSPB warden had helped plan the reserve].

On the Tuesday morning, I met my client, and we headed to Mai Po; where I stood well away from the bookings counter as he checked in – keeping myself in check as furious. And then, all was friendly, cheery from Mai Po; and turned out even the basic fee was waived. We had a great time in the reserve.

But what a palaver! Absurd; and even writing this almost a month later, I’m still angry, almost fuming, at Mai Po’s behaviour. Which, sadly, turns out not to be so exceptional; I posted about this on Facebook, and a guy living in HK posted in support, remarking he’d paid HK$400 to join general tour of reserve that was poorly run; and had been asked for HK$3600 as one person for entry!!

As to the reason for the massive charge; well it emerged during follow up messaging w Mai Po:

“Please try to understand how the habitats in MP are actively managed and how much resources are needed.”

Well I do understand this; been bringing people with monies, writing articles etc about Mai Po; and long advocating for more visitors to in turn bring more revenue to help the reserve.

Here, though, Mai Po showing an utter lack of understanding of people who should be supporting the reserve, and not feeling aggrieved, appalled at attempted price gouging. I’d been a WWF Hong Kong member for over 30 years till the membership fee price hike, when I stopped membership; but had thought better of the Mai Po team until this.

Postscript: Mai Po also turns down easy money

At much the same time as I was trying to arrange this visit, I was contacted by a chap from Canada; he and his wife were about to transit in Hong Kong, arriving at 5am and departing early evening: could I help with bird guiding? I’d be busy, but I advised him to contact WWF HK regarding getting a permit for the day, should be HK$250.

Well he did try, and was rejected; apparently as not a member of a bird conservation society, noting:

I was  a former RSPB member when I lived in the UK, but let the membership expire when I moved to Canada (where I live today). I also informed them that I am locally active in my birding community in the Boundary Bay area in Vancouver, BC. It’s a bit frustrating because since retiring, I do a lot of birding in my local area all by bicycle and assist my fellow birders. I also used to be a member of the Reifel Bird Sanctuary here but since I’ve been biking everywhere, I let this lapse too.  They also stipulated that I should have applied 5 working days before my visit and that my wife would not qualify…she is more of a photographer rather than a birder.

Well, does this seem like the profile of a troublemaker?

Here, seems Mai Po turned down an easy HK$500; and pissed someone else off in the process. [customer care not in Mai Po vocab, evidently]

“Why Martin Williams is treated differently?”

As to that question above, I eventually wrote the following:

I don’t normally blow my own trumpet, but a few thoughts here:

  1. Beginning in 1987, I helped pioneer birding tours to Mai Po, with groups from Japan and especially UK company Sunbirder. These in turn helped raise Mai Po’s international profile, which has been important for conservation of the reserve, and indeed Deep Bay (including becoming a Ramsar site).
  2. I was involved in tours supported by the HK Tourism Board, calling them The Mai Po Wetland Experience. Not commercially successful, but again helping raise Mai Po’s profile. 
  3. Given that I know birds, Mai Po and more, and gained a strong reputation as a nature tour leader, former reserve manager Lew Young was fine with me arranging tours for visitors in which I would notify the reserve first, then arrive and borrow permit from visitor centre, and return it – while paying per head. This arrangement continued after Lew left, and worked just fine.
  4. Over the years, I have helped bring tens of thousands of HK dollars to Mai Po. Plus introduced people to the reserve and its birds – again boosting goodwill [hard to price], both within Hong Kong and internationally. Groups have included local school children, and globetrotting birdwatchers: several of whom may have later become like unpaid ambassadors, telling others about Mai Po.
  5. I have worked for the (then) Mai Po team, filming videos that were used to create short films on Mai Po that are in use today. This relied on my knowledge of the reserve; and boosted my knowledge.
  6. In addition to being an experienced nature tour guide, I am a writer and photographer, focusing on nature conservation. Over the years, I have written several feature articles on Mai Po – including the history of the reserve, conservation efforts and threats such as to the nearby fishponds. Perhaps more than anyone else in English?; and again, helping boost the reserve profile. Also wrote a Mai Po-focused chapter in the book, The Green Dragon.
  7. I am also active in conservation efforts elsewhere in Hong Kong, and in the region. For instance, I was a key person in making Beidaihe on the China coast known as a hotspot for birds travelling the East-Asian-Australasian Flyway, which of course includes Mai Po. This in turn led to the establishment of a wetland reserve at Beidaihe; I believe not many people have been key players in establishing reserves in this way. Often, for such efforts, I was unpaid.
  8. When I rent permits this way, they are paid for; so Mai Po receives some income, with no trouble other than loaning the permits. A “win-win” situation, as some like to say.

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