Hoi Ha residents up in arms over Hong Kong government plan for visitor’s centre in marine park

Concern groups accuse the administration of ignoring their concerns over infrastructure, traffic and pedestrian issues associated with proposal

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 8:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 8:02am

Plans for a visitor centre in a pristine park on Sai Kung’s doorstep – the Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park – are being criticised by local residents who are fearful it will overwhelm the ecologically diverse area.

The Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD)’s proposal will see a visitor’s centre built at an existing barbecue site, replacing an area of natural grassland and 51 trees.

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Concern group Friends of Hoi Ha accused the government of jumping the gun and not addressing infrastructure, traffic and pedestrian issues, which it says will be further exacerbated by the visitor’s centre.

Friends of Hoi Ha chairwoman Nicola Newbery said the plan was misguided and should be returned to the drawing board.

AFCD’s complete pig-headedness in pushing forward a simplistic and unnecessary visitor’s centre will end up as an environmental disaster
Hoi Ha resident Nicola Newbery

“There is an opportunity here to invest in Hoi Ha as a world-class visitor and educational resource,” she said.

“[The government can] provide an integrated visitor educational experience, with most of the educational material out in the natural world, rather than in an unattractive air-conditioned building.

“AFCD’s complete pig-headedness in pushing forward a simplistic, badly thought-out and unnecessary visitor’s centre will end up as an environmental disaster, destroying the landscape and causing a road safety hazard.”

A department spokesman, who said the project was in the preliminary design phase, said the visitor’s centre was aimed at “enhancing public awareness and encouraging public involvement in marine conservation, and promoting a better understanding of the objectives and functions of marine parks in Hong Kong”.

The department said it conducted several rounds of consultation and held meetings with Hoi Ha residents, the education sector and visitors to the marine park in 2011.

It also said it received “general support” for the plan from the marine parks committee of the Country and Marine Parks Board in 2014.

Since the area falls within Sai Kung Country Park, approval from the Town Planning Board is not required.

Newbery said the government had failed to grasp the issues that concern groups and residents had with the plan, which they were first made aware of in 2004.

She said members from Friends of Hoi Ha and Friends of Sai Kung met then Country and Marine Parks Board chairwoman Nora Tam Fung-yee in 2005 to discuss the problems surrounding Hoi Ha Marine Park, including the proposed visitor’s centre.

The groups suggested opening two existing and abandoned footpaths for safe access – one leading from the barbecue site through the country park to the marine park, and the other directly to Hoi Ha village.

They said this would create a circular route, preventing visitors from having to turn back at the end of the trail and cause congestion with people coming in the opposite direction.

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According to Newbery, Tam agreed to reopen the path, but in a subsequent meeting last month between concern groups and the AFCD, the department said the proposal to reopen the path was “irrelevant” to its visitor centre plans.

Friends of Hoi Ha also rejected the department’s claim that the existing barbecue site was underutilised, saying it was “well used” by visitors, especially by school and university groups.

But the department said it conducted patrols in country parks at weekends and on public holidays and that the Hoi Ha barbecue site was “not as popular” as other sites in Sai Kung Country Park.

Another issue of concern, according to Newbery, is a lack of a proper traffic plan for visitors to the marine park.

“There’s no ‘park’n ride’ scheme at the entrance to the park. There are no legal parking places for visitors who are given passes for their cars to enter the country park. The only place to park is on the pavement, which blocks the pavement and forces pedestrians to walk on the road,” she said.

Currently, there are only three parking spaces for coaches beside the barbecue site, but they are rarely used, according to the concern group. Instead, coaches park along the road close to the entrance of Hoi Ha village. This causes traffic problems as the coaches block a lane of traffic, forcing vehicles to cross into the oncoming traffic lane to get around parked vehicles.

They suggest a ban on large coaches entering the village, as they are unable to navigate properly around the roundabout at the end of Hoi Ha Road as they have to make several three-point turns, sometimes reversing dangerously close to waiting tourists. Safe drop-off and pick-up areas are also needed, according to the group.

The AFCD said it issued only five coach permits in the morning and five in the afternoon, and had no plans to increase the number. Adding an additional two coach parking spaces in the proposed visitor’s centre was being considered, it said.

Friends of Hoi Ha also complained about the infrequency of the green minibus service between Sai Kung and Hoi Ha. The service runs from 8.25am to 6.55pm at 30-minute intervals on week days and every 20 minutes at weekends.

“It starts too late and finishes too early for residents to go to and from school and work,” said Newbery, forcing residents to use their cars.

The long wait for a minibus also causes long queues, causing waits of a few hours on busy days. Visitors not willing to wait call taxis, adding to the chaos of weekend visitor traffic.

In May, the department conducted a survey on the occupancy rate and number of passengers waiting at minibus stops, and found the average occupancy rate on Sunday was 53 per cent. However, there was a surge of people from 3.30pm to 5.30pm in Hoi Ha, usually non-locals . The minibus operator was urged to deploy additional vehicles during peak hours.

Ecologist and member of the Country and Marine Parks Board, Dr Billy Hau Chi-hang, said the plans for the visitor’s centre should move forward, but matters raised by the concern groups should also be addressed.

“I think it’s just minor differences in opinion between Friends of Hoi Ha and the AFCD. The board actually advised the AFCD to use the ‘greenest’ method to build the visitor’s centre,” he said.

Hau has asked the AFCD to replant any exotic trees such as acacia confusa that may be felled to make way for the visitor’s centre.

Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park was designated a site of special scientific interest in 1989, and gazetted as a marine park in 1996. Last year, the AFCD recorded 45,000 visitors to the marine park.

It is the only marine park in Hong Kong accessible by road.