Hong Kong needs more public water sports facilities

Paul Zimmerman says Hong Kong needs someone to champion development of public facilities to cope with the growing interest in recreational marine and water sports activities

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 3:55am

In his election manifesto, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying affirmed the "social value of Hong Kong waters", and promised to establish a fund to provide local fishermen with skills training to replace traditional fishing with "new methods of sea-based operations", and to promote the sustainable use of Hong Kong waters.

We also need waterfront land and funding for piers and public boat storage facilities - and a clear indication of who in government will be responsible for supporting these new sea-based operations.

For a long time, Hong Kong's waters were predominantly used for commercial operations including transport and fishing, and our coastlines in Aberdeen and around Victoria Harbour were aligned with shipyards, wharfs, cargo working areas, fish markets, ice factories and other port operations. With manufacturing moved to the mainland, and the recently imposed trawling ban, the profile of our marine industry is changing. Recreational marine and water sports activities are growing, while commercial operations are declining.

A growing number of people want to enjoy Hong Kong's archipelago of 263 islands, spectacular 733-kilometre coastline, white sand beaches and blue waters. The Sai Kung pier is crowded on weekend mornings with boaters. Small sampans are rented at Eastern Channel next to Tseung Kwan O, To Tau beach in Tolo Harbour or at Ting Kau beach by people who go fishing. Sailing regattas are held in Port Shelter, Victoria Harbour and off Middle Island. Junks and yachts sail out of Aberdeen to quiet bays. Windsurfers set off from Stanley and Cheung Chau. Catamaran sailors ready their boats in Discovery Bay and Tai Tam Harbour. Tourists enjoy tours of Victoria Harbour and Lamma's fish restaurants. Weekenders take small ferries to remote islands.

This growth has taken the government by surprise. Government water sports centres are short of space. Private marinas are full and have long waiting lists. In any case, their membership fees are unaffordable for most.

Many more people would like to keep a boat, surfboard or canoe. But unlike Europe and the US, no one has a yard or shed to store equipment. Importantly, most people don't own a car and it is impossible to take a surfboard on the MTR.

This does not stop some people from owning boats. They are willing to risk tying their boat up under a tree, onto rocks, under bridges or in communal areas in typhoon shelters. Hong Kong has yet to build public recreation clubs along the coastline where people can keep boats and water sports equipment dry and safe at an affordable cost.

Last year, the owner of some village land on Lamma teamed up with a developer to propose a large-scale property development with a marina. He highlighted the opportunity for Hong Kong to be a water sports and yachting hub in Asia. As more and more Asians become boat owners, they would love to visit Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the proposal would have destroyed a large conservation area, and there was no convenient access.

Research by Designing Hong Kong has identified areas where we can build public marine recreation centres which are easily accessible and do not damage the ecology or landscape. Sites include Tolo Harbour, in front of the Science Park; south of Lohas Park in Junk Bay; at the Kwun Tong typhoon shelter; Yau Tong bay; the former Shek O quarry in Tai Tam Bay; by adding a breakwater at Stanley Bay; and by expanding the Aberdeen South Typhoon Shelter.

During this research, we discovered that there is no safe public pier at Repulse Bay and Deep Water Bay, despite the many recreational boating activities in the area. Equally, many of the beaches like Tai Long Sai Wan in Sai Kung lack proper pier facilities. We also discovered that no one has ever recognised or licensed the boat rental operations in Tseung Kwan O, To Tau and King Tau. And we were just in time to stop the rezoning and closure of the boat repair facilities along Ap Lei Chau Praya Road.

Sports, leisure and recreational marine activities provide a great opportunity for improving the quality of life of all people in Hong Kong. This in turn offers alternative jobs for fishermen who have to leave their trade, and for the people who repair and maintain fishing boats.

There were some 9,500 licensed leisure craft in 2010, comprising nearly 7,000 pleasure boats and about 2,500 open sampans. Our estimates show that there is an unfulfilled demand for another 13,000 leisure craft in Hong Kong. Much of this latent demand is for small, affordable boats and some is for larger boats that require permanent crew. What stops people from buying water sports equipment is that fewer than 4,000 berths are available for safe mooring and convenient storage. There is not even enough space for the existing boats in Hong Kong, let alone for visiting yachts or new sampans.

If we are serious about the sustainable usage of Hong Kong waters and replacing fishing with new methods of sea-based operations, we need to provide affordable, accessible and environmentally friendly public facilities on and along the waterfront: piers, landing steps, mooring, berthing, storage, repair and maintenance facilities for boats and water sports equipment.

Waterfront land in Hong Kong is either protected for conservation, used for promenades and open spaces, or set aside for development. Obviously, the highest revenue would be tall towers of residential apartments.

If we want to set aside land and seabed to support new sea-based operations, we will need a champion in government. Someone who truly believes in the social values of Hong Kong's magnificent waters. Someone who can develop policy, safeguard waterfront land and obtain funding to build public piers and marinas.

Paul Zimmerman is CEO of Designing Hong Kong