South Lantau

The government’s latest set of proposals for development of South Lantau as a tourism and recreation destination are very much a case of “Better late than never”. But our Legislative Council Members were quick to remind the administration of the second half of the expression: “Better never late”.

Last week the Development Bureau announced plans to make more of the natural resources of four rural areas around Pui O, Cheung Sha, Shui Hau and Shek Pik. The objective is to create an “eco-recreation corridor” which will include such features as campsites, a sports and recreation centre, a walkway, a heritage trail, an education centre, an adventure holiday area (with rope climbing) and so on. There will now be a two-month public consultation exercise.

Obviously, the plans have been in the works for some time and are therefore not a reflex reaction to the recent call by HKMAO Director Xia Baolong for Hong Kong to be more creative in its tourism development plans. Nonetheless they are a timely response to it.

Lawmakers were generally supportive but bemoaned the slow progress over the decades. There have been similar concept plans and public consultation exercises at various times since 2004, most recently in 2016. Even the latest plans have no implementation timetable.

Proposals for developing South Lantau are older than many of our legislators may realise. Forty years ago, my first posting in the government was as Assistant District Officer (Islands) in charge of development and even then we were floating some of the same ideas. At that time development opportunities were much more limited as access to the southern side of the island was essentially only by ferry from Central. There was a narrow winding road down from Tung Chung to the south side, but it could not handle significant traffic volumes.

The situation changed radically starting in 1998 with the opening of the airport at Chek Lap Kok, development of the adjacent new town and construction of the Tung Chung Line overlapping or running parallel to the Airport Express. Substantial improvements have also been made to the road south from Tung Chung to Pui O, permitting creation of a much more extensive public transport network, though access by private car is still restricted. Bearing in mind that by this time more than half of Hong Kong’s population lived in the New Territories, suddenly the effective catchment area of South Lantau became much larger. I recently took a large capacity tourist bus from Tung Chung to Tai O which years ago would have been quite impossible.

So where do we go now on South Lantau? The main things our LegCo members want to see are a costed indicative timetable and some specific projects being implemented. Andrew Lam Siu-lo said most facilities now promised should have been completed in the period 2017 to 2023. Ben Chan Han-pan supported him and Tony Tse Wai-chuen urged construction of some basic hardware items as quickly as possible. I think these requests are reasonable.

In response Undersecretary for development David Lam Chi-man promised to add some details to the outline and start some projects within the next two years.

As work proceeds in developing South Lantau, we will surely experience the classic tourism/recreation conundrum. The more attractive you make a place, the more people will want to visit it which will perhaps make the destination less attractive. More visitors will place extra demand on access and transport facilities, while improving them will have an environmental impact and attract still more visitors.

We are seeing a version of this situation at the moment in Sai Kung District. Po Pin Chau Island off the coast there is in Hong Kong’s Geopark and is famous for its vertical cliffs. Hikers have over the years found that the nearby headland at Fa Shan provides an excellent location from which to view the scenery and have developed a series of informal access footpaths and viewing locations. The Agriculture and Fisheries Department has become concerned about the environmental implications and public safety and has started a project to construct a viewing platform. This will incidentally tend to centralise access routes into a main footpath.

Concern is already being expressed that the improved access and viewing facilities will attract more people to the area, and some sections of the path are rather close to a cliff edge.

We can expect a range of views to be submitted in response to the public consultation exercise for South Lantau. For every existing visitor who would prefer to retain the uncrowded atmosphere, fresh air and beautiful scenery, there will be a shopkeeper thinking of all the extra soft drinks and snacks to be sold and a taxi driver dreaming of all the additional fares. It will then be up to the civil servants involved, and their political masters, to try to strike the right balance.

Other candidate locations for creative ideas should surely include Po Toi Island which I first visited more than 40 years ago. It was the site of a key episode in John Le Carre’s famous spy novel The Honourable Schoolboy. I remember also a hill in the northern New Territories which had a coin-in-the-slot telescope. Insert a coin (was it $1?) and you got a couple of minutes to get a good view over the boundary into “Red China”. Whether or not the telescope is still there (does anybody know?), the view is certainly changed but the location would surely be an attraction for history buffs.

Let us hope the private sector can think of some more bright ideas both here and in South Lantau. For myself, I’m just happy someone might soon be digging into an old drawer to pull out the plans we made 40 years ago.