Weekends in hell: day trippers making life tough for residents of popular Hong Kong holiday retreats
Escaping to a quieter place with a natural environment can be a tonic after a day in the city. Fortunately, for the same monthly rental as a shoe box in a high-rise tower block, larger homes are available in outlying areas, far from the office. The fresh air and slower pace of life make the relative inconvenience of the daily commute worthwhile.
The bad news is that weekends can be as manic as Mong Kok as visitors stream in, clogging streets, swamping restaurants and putting a strain on the transport network.
Sai Kung and Shek O, Lamma Island and Cheung Chau are prime examples of places that have long seen an influx of visitors at weekends and on public holidays. In the past decade, however, for several reasons the crowds have been growing to bursting point, which makes life increasingly frustrating for residents.
Sai Kung resident Karina O'Carroll says even at 12.30am after last Saturday's Dragon Boat Festival she had a problem getting a taxi from the town to her village. Cabbies refused to stop, apparently heading directly to the waterfront in search of day trippers on a long journey home.
"I haven't been out for a while and it ruined my night. I've lived in Sai Kung for 25 years and this was the first night I wished I lived elsewhere," she says.
Another resident, Lyndsey Cook, says it took her friend 3½ hours to get to Central from Sai Kung. "I hope the traffic will deter people from coming in the future. I hear lots of 'OMG, I'm never coming here again' in the taxi queues," she says.
Weekend traffic chaos is the norm for Sai Kung residents, as day trippers pour in for hiking, boat trips, barbecues or just to stroll around the town, which is serviced by two country roads.
With many weekenders arriving in vehicles, car parks fill up early and a trip to the supermarket is a headache. Illegal parking, including in taxi ranks and on pavements, is rife.
The government plans to widen Hiram's Highway, the access road from the south, to a four-lane dual carriageway, but residents wonder where all the traffic will go once it reaches the town. On top of that, several large residential developments under way will bring even more cars to town.
"The developers want to build as much as they can, so they are in favour of a dual carriageway, which we have been against all along," says Guy Shirra, former chairman of Friends of Sai Kung (FSK).
The plan is to widen the road in two stages, with the first stage beginning in the third quarter of this year.
Shirra says the highway definitely needs improving, but besides attracting more visitors to the town, a dual carriageway would also encourage dangerous driving.
Rumours have recently resurfaced of another plan to improve access to Sai Kung that would keep the cars away. Shirra says a former engineer from the MTR Corporation recently told FSK that the railway operator is studying the feasibility of extending its Ma On Shan line to the area. The station would be near Sha Kok Mei, the closest village to the town, Shirra says, and linked by shuttle bus.
"The MTR is annoyed that the Ma On Shan line is underperforming and bringing down its overall performance figures, and thinks it makes sense to tunnel under the mountain," the engineer told Shirra. "You can't stop something happening, and the MTR is the best option."
MTR Corp said in an emailed reply to the Post that "the corporation does not have any plan to extend the Ma On Shan line to Sai Kung".
On Hong Kong Island, Shek O has resisted high-rise development and is another popular retreat from the concrete jungle. The village is served by a single country road, and faces some of the same problems as Sai Kung. One resident says the number of holiday visitors has increased noticeably in recent years, probably due to the fitness boom.
"People have been getting more outdoorsy and are hitting the beach, stand-up paddling, swimming and so on. It's not like in the past when people used to spend hot weekends shopping in an air-conditioned mall," says the resident, who has lived in Shek O for nine years and asked to remain anonymous.
"On one recent public holiday, cars were parked on both sides of the road, bringing traffic to a virtual standstill. It was chaos," the resident says. "The police did nothing to move the cars lining the road, even though many had drivers sitting in them."
Makeshift carparks occasionally pop up, the resident says, charging motorists HK$200 an hour. Some drivers have been so desperate they've offered HK$1,000 for a space.
The queue for double-decker buses, meanwhile, "snakes through the village, and the other way past the golf course. You hear stories of people waiting for two hours. Forget about a cab if you want to leave the village at peak hours."
For residents of some outlying islands, one of the attractions is car-free roads, providing a safer, cleaner environment for raising children. But coming and going on holidays has been getting harder as visitor numbers have steadily climbed.
"On public holidays the situation is getting intolerable," says Ricky Tang, who has lived on Cheung Chau for 19 years.
"During Easter, for example, the ferry queues on the island stretched all the way along the waterfront, and scuffles broke out at the pier. I heard that some islanders headed to the front of the queue and waived utility bills at the staff to prove they lived there."
Cheung Chau, with an area of just 2.45 sq km, has traditionally been a hotspot for seafood lovers and young couples looking to rent rooms at its guest houses. Now, everything is overcrowded, Tang says - restaurants, shops, beaches and streets. "What's especially annoying are the idiots on rented tricycles and bikes, including people who think crowded streets are a good place to ride a bike for the first time. Queues for things such as fish balls go around the block."
Kwong Koon-wan, an Islands District councillor for Cheung Chau, says more day trippers have been visiting the island since the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), when city dwellers were advised to get some fresh air as a preventive measure against the disease.
An even bigger factor, Kwong says, has been the strengthening of the yuan against the Hong Kong dollar. "We have noticed that the number of visitors has increased rapidly since 2008, as some local people are staying in Hong Kong instead of going to the mainland," he says.
Kwong says some locals have expressed concern to the government and New World First Ferry about the increasing difficulty of getting to and from home. The district council has asked the ferry operator and the Transport Department to consider several solutions, including allowing commuters to buy tickets in bulk and have their own access channel - a suggestion the department is considering. First Ferry has said that in future it may reserve 80 to 100 seats for islanders during busy holidays, including Cheung Chau's popular Bun Festival.
Lamma Islanders have also been feeling the strain. At Yung Shue Wan, known for its laid-back and communal lifestyle, resident Liz Gower says it's been getting harder for residents to get home on weekends because of poor planning by Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry (HKKF).
In May, Gower started a petition on Facebook calling for the Transport Department to push HKKF into providing priority access for islanders on the Central-Yung Shue Wan route. The petition drew about 360 signatures in two weeks, and a further 250 people signed it on ferry trips.
"On Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, the ferry company should ensure that at least one turnstile is set aside for Lamma residents' use to enable them to get home," the petition letter read.
Gower says another solution on holidays could be for HKKF to hold back 50 seats for residents until five minutes before departure, to be filled thereafter by tourists.
Although HKKF says it scheduled 20 extra services over Easter, the petition letter asked the company to reconsider its ad hoc response to visitor numbers, ensuring ferries of the right size and frequency are provided on public holidays and weekends.
In its reply to Gower, the Transport Department stated that the ferry service is for all members of the public - residents and tourists alike. As in the case of Cheung Chau, the department was unwilling to take decisive action. Any new boarding arrangement would have to be considered carefully, taking into account the ferry operator's capacity and "crowd control", it said.
With Hong Kong's population continuing to climb, the number of city dwellers looking to escape the crush on rest days will also undoubtedly grow. Getting away from it all, with even more people scrabbling to do the same, will become increasingly difficult.