Out of sight

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 October, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 October, 2006, 12:00am

IT'S THE MOST far-flung of the outlying islands, tucked away in the northeast corner of Mirs Bay and left off most maps of Hong Kong. Fringed by white sand beaches and cliffs resembling layered cake because of colourful bands of eroded sedimentary rock, remote Tung Ping Chau draws enough fans to be voted the territory's 'most scenic natural spot' last year. But signs are the island may be falling victim to its own success.

Sarah Cheung Wai-man and her fellow students from Chinese University visited Tung Ping Chau a couple of weeks ago to photograph and record its wildlife for their biology class. 'This is the first time any of us have come here,' she says. 'We chose Tung Ping Chau because we'd heard it was pretty.'

But what the students found on the beaches and on the track circling the island left them less than impressed. 'There's a lot of rubbish,' Cheung says. 'It's not just on the beach; it's inland, too. People have thrown their empty packages and bottles along the paths.'

Although nearly deserted during the week, Tung Ping Chau is a popular destination on weekends and holidays when it's served by a ferry service from Ma Liu Shui. And in the peak summer months, day-trippers rise from the usual hundreds to thousands. Since 2001, when its surrounding waters were designated a marine park, visitor numbers have risen from 33,000 to 57,000 last year. More may be expected in the wake of government schemes to promote green tourism in the New Territories.

The island was once home to a thriving fishing and farm community of 3,000 people, but political turmoil during the Cultural Revolution cut off commerce with the mainland - it's just 3km off the coast of Guangdong - and most villagers moved away.

Mo Sui-ching was among the few remaining inhabitants, but he left 24 years ago to join his family in Tai Po. The 74-year-old remains the village representative for Tung Ping Chau, however, and returns to his old home most weekends.

He'd spend even more time on the island if there were other people to keep him company. 'I was one of the last to leave,' says Mo. 'There are a few [former villagers] who return on weekends, but without ferries it's too isolated to be here during the week.'

The interest in eco-tourism has been both a blessing and a curse for Tung Ping Chau, he says. Although it's put the island on the public radar, it has also attracted vendors more interested in cashing in on the wave of weekend visitors than reviving the village community.

'It was a wonderful village, and beautiful,' Mo says. 'But there's no one here now to care for it.'

Mo's complaints are shared by nature lovers who say eco-tourism is a misnomer for the activities organised by travel companies. Most bring groups to the island without teaching anything about the ecology or cultural heritage, the fishermen's abandoned villages just a curiosity for day-trippers.

'There are too many tour groups,' says Michael Hansen, who organises hikes in country parks. 'You have people who get on the ferry and are taken [to Tung Ping Chau]. They spend 10 minutes on the island and off they go to the next. But, as with many parts of Hong Kong's country parks, people aren't aware of how to behave in a natural environment. So they'll be picking up the coral, taking this and that, and throwing rubbish. My concern is that in a place as remote [as Tung Ping Chau], people are even more prone to just leave rubbish behind.'

Litter disposal comes under the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department as the island (with the exception of an area of old villages along its east coast) is administered as an extension of the Plover Cove Country Park. According to a spokesman, the department employs a contractor to remove rubbish on Tung Ping Chau three times a week and organises coastal clean-ups. Even so, it has prosecuted 18 people for littering on the island in the first nine months of the year.

The surrounding waters are home to 65 species of hard coral such as the flat lettuce and flower pot species, making it the most diverse in Hong Kong. But despite being declared a marine park, the sea bed off Tung Ping Chau is spoiled by cartons, bottles, cans and rice sacks that tear at the coral.

And with 222 fishermen licensed to drop lines anywhere in the area except for two 'no-take' zones, it's no surprise the park designation has done little to boost fish numbers or variety, says Andrew Cornish, head of conservation at the World Wide Fund for Nature. 'There is no reason to ever expect that the licensing system [the government] has set up would protect fish stocks,' he says.

Indications are that the government is more intent on developing the infrastructure for tourism than defining eco-tourism. At the Ma Liu Shui ferry pier, the Civil Engineering and Development Department is busy rolling out a large-scale project to 'enhance' the waterfront with landscaping, a beach and boardwalk with space for vendors. 'We're providing infrastructure to serve the pier and provide more public space,' says spokesman John Yan Ka-ho.

The project is part of a pilot green tourism scheme which calls for 'continuous upgrading of ... facilities to complement the use of the Tung Ping Chau Country Trail for nature appreciation'.

The corresponding pier on Tung Ping Chau is getting a similar makeover, but agriculture and fisheries officials insist the construction will not upset marine life.

'It's not built on any stony corals,' says a departmental spokesman. 'A detailed ecological survey had been conducted before the pier improvement work started, and its impact on the marine environment is closely monitored.'

Waiting at the pier for the return ferry to Ma Liu Shui, Cheung and her friends worry about the impact of unchecked floods of visitors to the once pristine island.

'It's nice here. It's dirty in a lot of places, but it's nice. Maybe the government should limit the number of people who can come,' Cheung says.

Her classmate Mo Yan-kan has another suggestion: 'They should organise rubbish clean-ups - that would really be eco-tourism.'