No question that Lantau Island should be developed – but we must tread carefully

Ken Chu says the grand plans for much-needed housing and tourist facilities need to be handled sensitively to allay public concern and preserve our precious natural habitats

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2016, 4:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2016, 4:25pm

While taking a flight from Chek Lap Kok, one of the world’s busiest airports, one may not give much thought to the island it is located on. If we take Lantau Island out of the picture, densely-populated Hong Kong looks likely to run out of land to support its projected population of 9 million by 2030.

Lantau looks majestically serene. Country parks cover over 50 per cent of the island with about 110,000 dwellers, fewer than the Wan Chai or Western districts. The island also boasts magnificent coastlines, pristine beaches, abundant trees, and fauna and flora indigenous to Hong Kong. It is this rarity that draws visitors to the island.

Lantau development: The next big chance to build a new Hong Kong town

Without doubt, Lantau is a popular tourist spot. But with its size, beauty and natural resources, it has the potential to go even further. It is no surprise that many people in Hong Kong consider the island a garden escape from the crowded malls and fume-filled, boisterous city streets. The island is an enclave for locals and expatriates seeking respite in a tranquil suburban environment.

Religious, adventure and wellness tourism are all gaining in popularity globally and present untapped opportunities for Lantau.

Hong Kong must find space on Lantau island for development

According to the World Tourism Organisation, some 300 to 330 million pilgrims visit the world’s key religious sites every year. The Big Buddha, Po Lin Monastery and the Wisdom Path appeal to visitors seeking spiritual sustenance on their vacations, as well as to experience the cultural and historical heritage relating to religious tourism.

Since Lantau is our last frontier, we must pursue any plan with great care

As people’s health consciousness grows, their travelling habits also change. More are showing an interest in adventure tourism, incorporating sports activities such as hiking, camping and mountain-biking into their holiday plans. Lantau provides exciting paths and trails for those seeking such adventurous experiences. A study by the UN World Tourism Organisation in 2012 estimated the value of the global outbound adventure travel sector at US$263 billion. For the same reason, these travellers are also driving the growth of wellness tourism. By 2017, this market may well reach more than US$600 billion.

The Development Bureau is trying to map out an ambitious long-range plan to refashion Lantau using its natural resources and existing infrastructure. Such a grand plan is bound to encounter suspicion, if not resistance, much of it due to the “not in my backyard” syndrome.

The Lantau Development Advisory Committee released in January its first report that provides a road map on how to develop the island. Since Lantau is our last frontier, we have a duty to tread carefully, and take fully into account the interest of the Hong Kong public and the need to conserve the environment.

Disneyland expansion part of massive Lantau land reclamation project to house 700,000 more by 2030

The report recommends developing a vibrant commercial, economic and housing corridor along the northern shore, encompassing the airport, the soon-to-be-completed border crossing facilities for the bridge to Zhuhai and Macau, the planned land reclamation for Tung Chung’s new town extension and Siu Ho Wan. The proposed boost in infrastructure is timely, to support its projected population of 1.1 million by 2030, almost 10 times its current level.

It also recommends enhancing the northeastern part of the island where Hong Kong Disneyland is located, as a tourism hub. Meanwhile, the rest of the island, especially South Lantau, is to be designated for ecological, leisure and cultural tourism. A metropolis, acting as Hong Kong’s third central business district, is also envisaged for a huge artificial island reclaimed in the middle of the central waters near Kau Yi Chau island.

This is a forward-looking plan. It is logical and worthwhile to enhance Lantau’s position as a tourist destination.

Lantau development committee sees island as only real estate

Arguably, what is envisioned may not be fully accepted by the public, but let’s look at it in a positive light. Sentosa, a resort island in Singapore, used to be swampland more than four decades ago. It is now a popular tourist destination with a charming natural environment, despite difficulties faced by the Singapore government during development.

‘Quite a bit of space’: Hong Kong development adviser who says Lantau Island is underused met with scepticism and silence

Lantau is 30 times the size of Sentosa; the level of difficulty in developing the island might be 30 times greater, but I see 30 times the potential.

Lantau is 30 times the size of Sentosa; the level of difficulty in developing the island might be 30 times greater, but I see 30 times the potential

I certainly foresee many challenges, foremost being how to address stakeholders’ distrust and concerns about the disappearance of the tranquil landscapes, together with transport needs.

Development in Hong Kong’s rural areas always involves land-use changes, which is a politically sensitive matter, especially after the recent case of mountains of “garbage” allegedly dumped illegally in Tin Shui Wai and in a green belt zone near the Hong Kong Institute of Education in Tai Po. Environmentalists accuse landowners and tenants of using the sly tactic of “destroying to pave the way for development”, to force the hand of the government to agree to allow them to develop low-density luxury residential projects.

The public’s fear is that the government blueprint for Lantau is a disguised massive residential and business development project for the benefit of big corporations, depriving them of the opportunity to enjoy the natural and rural landscape.

Transport is essential to tourism development. Currently, people heading to Lantau rely principally on ferries, roads and the MTR. When a barge struck Kap Shui Mun Bridge late last year, chaos ensued, revealing inadequate transport connectivity to the island. The future Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Link, due to open in 2018, may not relieve the pressure for the majority of Tung Chung residents, and tourists are unlikely to commute in a north-south direction. The proposed transport link between the future man-made island near Kau Yi Chau and Hong Kong Island will not happen soon, either. A dedicated rail line similar to the Disneyland Resort Line or Sentosa monorail could be considered to run along the southern shore of the island, as well as linking the south and north sides, to avoid direct competition for transport between tourists and residents. Railways are, after all, more eco-friendly.

Finally, to address environmental groups’ concerns and distrust, actions speak louder than words. At the very least, the Development Bureau should draw up a conservation action plan for the island and invite environmentalists to be involved. A participatory management model can be considered, with green groups invited to help run areas of high ecological value and biodiversity, akin to the Mai Po Nature Reserve. It is vital to find a way to adhere to the principle of environmental protection in development. No development should be allowed to compromise the environment.

Since Lantau is our last frontier, we must pursue any plan with great care, keeping in mind the precious natural habitats and resources. Building a new town is not a formidable task, but once a vast area of lush greenery inhabited by animals and birds is gone, we may be unable to bring it back.

Dr Ken Chu is a member of the Lantau Development Advisory Committee. He is also group chairman and CEO of the Mission Hills Group and a National Committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference