Upturn in hiking in Hong Kong has a downside, as solitude becomes increasingly hard to find

Hikers are turning out in huge numbers to enjoy the city’s picturesque nature trails, making it ever harder to get away from the crowds; these days you even have to queue to start walking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 7:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2017, 1:59pm

It’s not unusual these days to venture into Hong Kong’s countryside to get away from it all, only to find it teeming with other hikers seeking an escape from city life. Sometimes you even have to queue to start walking on a trail.

Little more than a decade ago, this scenario would have been unthinkable. I’ve been hiking in Hong Kong for 30 years, and have seen a remarkable upturn in the numbers of people heading to the outdoors. I recall wondering why people were seemingly so uninterested in the countryside, and becoming one of perhaps five or so bird photographers in the city, compared to the hundreds there are now.

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I walked the Dragon’s Back when the path there was barely known, visited remote Tung Ping Chau when its cafes still had only a handful of tables. And, in my memory at least, there was never the hassle of queuing for buses to get home after outings.

The first major upturn in the number of people heading out to Hong Kong’s countryside happened during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, when it suddenly became less enticing to mingle with crowds in shopping malls. More recently, I’ve also observed a noticeable increase in visitors to once quiet destinations such as Shui Hau or Yi O on Lantau, after publicity in print and social media.

And getting away from it all may become even harder in future. In an effort to reinvent the region’s image to holidaymakers, the Hong Kong Tourism Board rolled out a “Best of All, It’s in Hong Kong” campaign in 2016, including posters touting its “great outdoors”.

“Promoting Hong Kong’s natural ecology and landscape is part of the HKTB’s long-term strategies for marketing Hong Kong as a travel destination,” a board spokesman says, adding that it has also recently published a new Great Outdoors Hong Kong guidebook featuring the Geopark and a series of guided tours.

“In the future, we will continue to work closely with the travel trade to develop and promote tourism products featuring Hong Kong’s natural scenery so as to broaden Hong Kong’s appeal,” the board says.

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Precisely how much the number of visitors to the countryside has grown is something of a mystery.

I’ve not once noticed anyone counting me in as I arrive at a country park, yet the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department produces annual visitor tallies. As expected, these show a marked increase soon after the country park system was established – soaring from 2.7 million in 1977 to 8.8 million in 1987, and then climbing to 12 million in 2006.

Then, however, something curious happens, with official tallies appearing to flatline, hovering in a range between 11.1 million and 13.6 million, with 13.3 million visitors in 2015-16. Asked how these figures were arrived at, the department replied that they were “estimated based on sampling in some strategic and representative locations in different periods of time” and may vary “hingeing on a combination of factors such as the number of rainy days, hot days and cold days of the year”.

Without further details, this leaves room for speculation that devising the figures involves substantial application of the ancient art of guessology. And as for the flatlining – well, that would seem convenient for advocates of housing development in country park areas, who might be only too happy at apparent evidence the rise in visitor numbers has stalled.

Yet the official record showing no significant growth in hiker numbers over the past decade is at odds with the experiences of local hiking groups.

We schedule about three hikes a day on weekdays and 12 hikes a day on weekends, and there are never enough hikes to meet the demand
Shum Si-ki

“There is not only a surge in our membership, but in the number of hikers in general,” says Shum Si-ki, founder of Hong Kong Hiking Meetup. “I’ve observed a uniformly increasing interest in hiking.”

As of late last year, about 26,750 hikers joined Hong Kong Hiking Meetup’s 1,750 scheduled hikes – and not just during weekends and public holidays. “There are more people joining our weekday hikes than in old times,” Shum says. “We schedule about three hikes a day on weekdays and 12 hikes a day on weekends, and there are never enough hikes to meet the demand.”

“We’ve seen an increase of number of people buying hiking shoes, clothing and gear from us since October,” says Ryan Cheng, owner of RC Outfitters stores, and a keen hiker and trail runner. “We still have over 10 per cent sales growth compared with sales for October and November 2015.”

Cheng says they’ve seen particularly large sales growth (more than 20 per cent) in items such as professional hiking shoes and socks, and hiking poles. “We also see that there are more and more hikers joining trail running.”

Paul Zimmerman, a Southern District councillor and founder of Save Our Country Parks, says: “While [paragliding] recently over Dragon’s Back [in the southeast of Hong Kong Island] I saw a thick queue of people from one end to the other – and long queues for the buses to take people home. This is a massive change since I first started flying in the early ’90s, when there was hardly a soul on the ridge, not even when the weather was nice.”

Zimmerman says that when he now walks his four dogs at High Junk Peak, on the Clear Water Bay peninsula, he has to make sure he’s out and back before 8.30am to avoid experiencing difficulties passing people on the narrow trails. “Again, it’s a significant change since I moved out here [to the eastern New Territories] nine years ago.”

Paul Etherington, owner of tour operator Kayak and Hike, says: “I always need to time excursions into the hills very early to avoid buses and large groups.”

There are other downsides to the upturn in visitor numbers. Nicola Newbery, chairwoman of concern group Friends of Hoi Ha, says the crowds arriving at the village, on the northern coast of the Sai Kung peninsula, are a problem. Although a road to the village was built in the 1970s, it remained peaceful until 2003, when a combination of the Sars outbreak and WWF-Hong Kong highlighting the neighbouring marine park spurred what she refers to as a “visitor explosion”.

Late on weekends and public holidays, long queues for infrequent minibuses and tourist coaches can be a common sight. “We still don’t have the infrastructure to cope with large tourist coaches,” says Newbery. “There is bedlam on a busy day. All that extra sewage, percolating into and polluting the marine park waters, as the government refuses to give Hoi Ha a mini sewage treatment works.”

Zimmerman says a boost in the number of people increases the waste found along trails: “It is my sense that more people care, too, but there are ample numbers who leave trash along the paths.”

“When I do get out for a trail run, it seem trails are well used and there’s an increase of erosion, and trail tagging – with fluoro pink nylon,” Etherington says.

Then there is “the usual disrespect at country park barbecue sites”, he says, referring to the disposable barbecue forks, plastic plates, bottles and various other waste people leave behind without bothering to place it in bins.

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But there are also upsides to the greater interest being shown in the great outdoors in Hong Kong, according to Zimmerman.

“I am delighted to see the country parks become more like city parks – with people coming and going more often,” he says. “It is healthy. It means, though, that we may have to do more to ensure the parks can handle the volume, including fixing trails [with stone or wood], creating new trails for bicycles, allowing and enabling sports activities – and negotiating ‘good behaviour’ with the various sports enthusiasts.”

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If you do want to get away from the madding crowds, remember that there are still quiet places in Hong Kong. “Plover Cove is less trodden than parks closer to the city and there’s frequent public transport,” says Zimmerman.

Other areas where you might find yourself almost or seemingly utterly alone even during holidays include southwest Lantau Island, and trails away from “star” routes such as the MacLehose and Wilson trails. There are other places where you can relax and even find solitude, but that would be telling. You can search among articles about the outdoors on scmp.com to find them.

And even if you do head for busy trails, you can still enjoy respite from the city, and marvel at the fact that a place like Hong Kong has such natural wonders on its doorstep.