Attraction is no secret, says one young visitor: being with the animals is fun Some people may be puzzled why a patch of swamp in the far northwest New Territories is drawing hordes of visitors while glitzy Disneyland is reportedly struggling to meet attendance targets. But it is not that bewildering, said Lay Chik-chuen, the conservation official overseeing construction and operation of the Wetland Park at Tin Shui Wai. The secret of the park's success is that it taps into an unfilled need for largely city dwellers to get up close and personal with nature, said Mr Lay, an assistant director at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. 'There are the living animals and plants in an outdoor habitat, but at the same time we provide games and other activities for wildlife education which make the park very interactive,' he said. Young nature lover Boris Chiu couldn't agree more. 'Usually animals are locked in cages in other parks, but here I can find the animals myself. It is a lot of fun,' said the seven-year-old, who often borrows library books about animals because his school does not teach enough about them. Whatever the reason, the results are impressive. The park opened in May with a target of 500,000 visitors a year, which it surpassed in six months. The interest has not waned, with 2,000 to 3,000 visitors on an average day and the park's capacity of 4,000 frequently tested, particularly at weekends when the tickets - HK$30 for adults and HK$15 for children and seniors - often sell out. Part of the appeal is that the 60-hectare outdoor area and 10,000 square metre visitor centre offer a choice between nature - mangroves, streams and creatures as diverse as fiddler crabs and egrets - and a modern setting, with exhibits and interactive games. 'This park has very strong educational values,' said Boris' mother, Pamela, visiting on a school holiday with other family members. In fact, general nature education is a major part of the park's purpose and schools have been queuing for guided tours, said Mr Lay. An education kit for teachers is also being prepared. St Paul's Co-educational College biology teacher Paul Sin Wai-hung said the variety of habitats in the park made nature education much easier because they did not need to travel around Hong Kong to visit the different habitats. The park's success highlights a dilemma inherent in any such enterprise: how to balance education with conservation. In this case, however, the balance is maintained because the park is next door to the world-renowned Mai Po bird habitat where human access is strictly regulated. Mai Po Nature Reserve Centre manager Lew Young said the new park would not affect visitor numbers to Mai Po because only 200 people a day were allowed in anyway. 'We are no way in competition with the wetland park,' he said. University of Hong Kong assistant professor in ecology and biodiversity Billy Hau Chi-hang agreed. '[The wetland park] is not a bad place for wetland education for the general public, while Mai Po is more like an educational place for specialists,' he said. Mr Lay said the park would concentrate on making its habitats more suitable for more species to encourage their migration to Hong Kong. But Dr Hau said using it for general education made the place less desirable for migrating species because animals preferred to be undisturbed. The park so far has not attracted many foreign tourists, which does not surprise the travel industry. 'Green tours are never a big, mainstream hit,' Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung said. 'It has its attractiveness but after all it is not one that would fit most tourists' tastes.' Despite its success, a financial cloud hangs over the future of the park. With HK$500 million for construction and HK$30 million a year for operating, it may become a long-term liability to the agriculture department, especially as the park is run by department staff. The Mai Po Nature Reserve needs about HK$2.5 million to operate a year. Mr Lay said the department was planning to outsource management of the park in two years. But Dr Hau said this might affect the park's function as an educational venue. 'I don't see how it could work if it's given to a commercial organisation,' he said. 'They would just think of how to make more money.'