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In Hong Kong, Foreign Tourists Are Replaced by a Local Variety

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HONG KONG — Of all the problems created by the pandemic, Sisi Wong did not expect that finding parking would be one of them.

Travel to Hong Kong was cut off. Residents were urged to stay home. And besides, Ms. Wong lived in a remote northern pocket of the territory, where rolling hills outnumbered skyscrapers and few visitors ventured even in normal times.

Yet there she was, arriving home to find trash scattered near her house, taxis clogging the single narrow road and her usual parking spot occupied by a stranger’s car.

“We’ve called the police, we’ve blocked the road, but there are still so many people,” Ms. Wong said on a recent Sunday, as yet more cars trundled by her tiny village, which sits — to her newfound dismay — next to a photogenic reservoir ringed by weeping willows.

“Before the epidemic, usually no one came, except maybe on weekends,” she said. “Now, there are people all the time.”

In tourist magnets around the world, from Paris to the Galápagos, the pandemic has brought one small blessing, to the relief of many locals: the disappearance of some obnoxious visitors. That’s also true in the postcard-famous parts of Hong Kong, where lines no longer spill out of designer showrooms and travel coaches no longer block the neon-lit streets.

But as foreign tourists have vanished, a new, local species has emerged.

Bored and trapped in an area one-third the size of Rhode Island, Hong Kongers have sought out the most far-flung, once-quiet corners of their territory of 7.5 million people, mobbing nature trails and parks with the kinds of crowds previously limited to the Causeway Bay shopping district.

Even though the subtropical humidity can make being outdoors unbearable much of the year — and despite an abundance of mega-malls offering ample entertainment excuses to never leave their air-conditioned interiors — Hong Kongers seem to be experiencing the collective thrill of discovering nature.

About 75 percent of Hong Kong is undeveloped, much of it protected parkland roamed by wild boars and monkeys. Just outside the glittering cityscape is a quilt of islands and peaks ringed by the turquoise South China Sea.

At some of the island’s most popular nature spots, like Devil’s Peak, a rocky outcrop strewn with century-old military ruins, climbers now find themselves in standstill pedestrian traffic. Hikers scaling Lion Rock — a steep, feline-shaped mound that yields a breathtaking skyline view — can sweat on the ascent without fear because the lines for photos are so long, they are able to dry off before their first selfie.

The crowds aren’t the only problem. Crumpled surgical masks dot the trails like strange new flora. Environmental groups have fretted over illegal camp fires. The number of mountain rescues by the Fire Services Department nearly tripled last year, to 602, as some newbie hikers perhaps pushed themselves too far.

“They’re often taking a tourist mind-set to the countryside,” said Vivien Cheng, the director of community partnerships at the Green Earth, a sustainability nonprofit. “If someone discovers a place with a very beautiful rock, then that place is doomed.”

Agnes Cheung is one of the recent converts to nature’s appeal. A college student, she was visiting Lau Shui Heung, the reservoir near Ms. Wong’s village. Before the outbreak, Ms. Cheung spent her weekends shopping, visiting museums or playing video games. “Without this pandemic, I wouldn’t even know there is such a place in Hong Kong,” she said.

But she was tired of staring at a screen after so many Zoom classes. In malls, “you’re just breathing germs.” As for the museums — “all closed!” she said, her voice despairing.

“And no more cinemas! No more karaoke!” chimed in her friend, Michelle Wong.

So the two had turned to Instagram to seek out new destinations. They had been lured by what they saw of the reservoir: neat rows of cypress trees, like soldiers, flanking the water’s placid green surface.

But now that they had arrived, some things were getting in the way of the perfect shot. “We just saw glass bottles there when were taking photos,” Ms. Cheung said, gesturing to the opposite shore. “People are so bad.”

And there were the crowds — skipping rocks, picnicking and, of course, taking photos. “They’re everywhere,” Ms. Wong said. “There are too many people, so you cannot really take your mask off, even if you want to take a good picture.”

This is likely not what the government imagined when it created the countryside parks in the 1970s. The goal was to give residents a place to “regain equilibrium,” according to a government adviser who recommended the parks’ establishment.

For a while, few residents felt so unbalanced. In the 1980s, just around 12 percent of Hong Kongers said they hiked in the parks, according to survey data.

But over the past two decades, park usage has more than doubled. Outdoor activity spiked after the outbreak of SARS in 2003, leading the government to expand and promote the trails.

Even so, the pandemic influx has been on a new level. The parks logged 12 million visitors in 2020, an 11 percent increase from the year before, according to government statistics, even though public barbecue areas and campsites were closed for more than seven months because of the virus.

The crowds have created a conundrum for outdoor evangelists like Dan Van Hoy, a senior leader with Hong Kong Hiking Meetup. Of course, Mr. Van Hoy says, he is thrilled to see more people venturing beyond the high-rises. When he first joined the group eight years ago, it had about 8,000 registered members. It now has 25,000.

But he will admit that the crowds and litter can be overwhelming these days, even on weekdays. On weekends — “it’s just, oh my goodness,” he said.

Ms. Cheng, from the environmental group, was less diplomatic. Some new hobbyists were transplanting Hong Kong’s famous “consumerist attitude” to its natural oases, she said, citing trampled vegetation and illegal dirt biking that has left once-lush hilltops barren.

The government said it punished more than 700 people last year for violating anti-epidemic measures in the parks and had deployed workers to remind people to pick up their litter; Ms. Cheng said enforcement had not been strict enough.

She issued a bleak warning: “We’ll also need this countryside when the next epidemic comes, so we need to protect it.”

There are still refuges for those in the know. When the crowds get too dense at Lau Shui Heung Reservoir, Tsao King-kwun, a retired professor, drives to small villages nearby, where he likes to admire the traditional architecture. It’s a departure from his usual walking route around the reservoir, but Mr. Tsao can rest assured that the crowds won’t follow.

“Because they don’t know it,” he laughed. “This” — he gestured to the reservoir, where he had deemed the crowds acceptable for a walk that afternoon — “is quite obvious. They go on Facebook.”

Those who live nearby have no such escape. Ms. Wong, the village resident, said she had watched tourists flow in and out for weeks now, taking up seats on the public minibus that older residents relied on for transportation and ignoring the blue police tape that had been strung up to prevent roadside parking after locals complained.

The reservoir is famous for its winter foliage, when the cypress leaves turn a spectacular orange, but she hadn’t seen it this year because of the crowds.

Still, she took solace in the fact that, as the seasons and foliage changed, so would the number of visitors. “After a while, there won’t be this many people,” she said. “They’ll all go to Tai Mo Shan” — Hong Kong’s highest peak — “to see the bell flowers.”

Elsie Chen contributed research.

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