Sat, Jun 12, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Eco-tourism fades away in Hong Kong

The former British colony is now attracting mostly mainland Chinese for shopping, rather than Westerners interested in natural attractions

AFP , Hong Kong

Tourists take photos of humpback dolphins, locally known as ``pink dolphins,'' on a eco-tour boat in Hong Kong waters.


Five years ago, nature-tour guide Martin Williams would witness hundreds of foreign visitors taking organized tours around Hong Kong's little-known ancient villages and hidden natural gems.

These days, however, the tours take just a handful of people.

"The last time I saw one of the tours, they were having trouble filling a mini-van," Williams said.

At the same time, tiny uninhabited islands -- of which Hong Kong has hundreds -- are being inundated by pleasure boats disgorging visitors onto often fragile ecosystems ill-suited to such invasions.

For Williams and Hong Kong's small band of like-minded tour operators, eco-tourism here is in a mess.

Changing tourist trends, low investment and poor official recognition are not only damaging business, they are also damaging the environment.

"It's pretty grim, actually," complained Lew Young who manages the government-operated Mai Po Marsh bird and nature sanctuary. "There is no coordination -- and the environment is suffering as a result."

Hong Kong boasts a surprisingly rich hinterland beyond the glitz and neon that characterize it in tour brochures.

The famous urban areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon account for just 97 of the territory's 1,098km2, the rest being mostly scenic tropical forest fringed by sandy shores.

However, environmentalists fear for the greenlands' future as viable, and even viewable, tourist sites.

The chief problem is dwindling interest.

"The new wave of tourists, mainland Chinese, are just not interested in the cultural or ecological side of Hong Kong," says Williams, a long-time nature guide. "They only come here for the shopping."

Hong Kong's leading dolphin-watch company has the same problem.

"Our customers used to be mostly Japanese and Western," said Janet Walker, senior tour coordinator of Hong Kong Dolphin Watch. "Now we get hardly any Japanese, the numbers of Westerners have dropped and mainlanders just don't seem to be interested."

Since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, authorities have concentrated on tapping the lucrative and growing mainland tourism market.

Once-Draconian travel restrictions have been lifted to allow more Chinese in and legislation has been passed allowing mainlanders to enter as individual travelers rather than in tour groups.

The result has been a huge increase in mainland visitors: In March, 57 percent of visitors came from China compared with 18.1 percent in 1990.

Coincidentally, Western tourist numbers have dropped: Visitors from Europe, the Americas and Australasia accounted for just 13 percent of arrivals in March 2004, compared with 33 percent in 1990.

"What we have isn't so different to what they can see at home," says Williams, whose First Step Nature Tours, one of a handful of licensed eco-tourism operations in Hong Kong, has been forced to pull down the shutters due to falling demand.

"If you look at the brochures, Hong Kong is never portrayed to overseas tourists as a place for nature lovers -- it's just the shopping that is promoted," Williams said.

But the Hong Kong Tourism Board defended the its promotions policy.

"Shopping is a 'must do' item in the itineraries of visitors from mainland China," said a spokeswoman. "They believe they can enjoy quality shopping in Hong Kong."

The resulting fall in income has forced established operators to push up their prices, spawning fly-by-night unlicensed or untrained operators offering cheaper excursions, something that worries Mai Po's Young.

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