First came Covid. Then came the crowds. Over the past year and a half, as Hong Kong has weathered the ebb and flow of coronavirus infections and public health restrictions, people have turned to the city’s vast network of country parks for relief. Many, many people.
“On some of the trails it’s bloody gridlock,” says Daisann McLane, a journalist, tour guide and avid hiker.
“The demand for public space and country parks has shot up to the point where people who were using the country parks a lot had to become inventive about how to avoid the crowds,” says public space advocate and Southern District councillor Paul Zimmerman.
“People were complaining a lot that some of the typical destinations in the country parks are so crowded they are even more dangerous than the shopping malls,” says academic, artist and urban wanderer Sampson Wong.
The situation was remarkable enough that even The New York Times took note, describing how “the most far-flung, once-quiet corners” of Hong Kong have been mobbed by “the kinds of crowds previously limited to the Causeway Bay shopping district.” It observed that Hongkongers “seem to be experiencing the collective thrill of discovering nature.”
Though readers of the Times may be surprised to discover that more than 40 percent of Hong Kong’s land area is reserved for country parks—440 square kilometres in total—it comes as no shock to the people who live here, millions of whom have been enjoying the country parks every year since they were first established in 1976. But the crowds of the past year have thrown new light on just how precious these parks are and how vulnerable they have become. With more attention comes more pressure from tourism and development. As the country park network marks its 45th anniversary, it’s worth asking what’s in store for the city’s green lungs.
To understand where the parks are going, it’s important to know where they have been. Before the British arrived in 1841, nearly the whole of Hong Kong was countryside, with the exception of a few small market towns in the New Territories. Ancient pathways linked villages and hamlets, passing over hills and through farms. When Hong Kong’s population exploded after World War II, the result of millions of refugees pouring in from war-ravaged mainland China, these old paths began to attract something novel: recreational visitors. By the 1970s, according to a paper written by then-governor Murray MacLehose, as many as five million visits per year were being made to the countryside “by people from the towns who spend their Sundays walking or picnicking, and the number will certainly increase.”
MacLehose was an avid hiker himself—a “hill walker,” as he was more likely to describe it—and he spent his free time wandering all around the countryside. Known for his unpretentious demeanour and left-leaning politics, MacLehose pushed ahead many vital reforms that laid the groundwork for modern-day Hong Kong, from universal health care and education to institutions like the ICAC, the anti-corruption bureau that cleaned up the city’s notoriously bent police force. You can add the country parks to his list of achievements.
In 1972, one year after he arrived in Hong Kong, MacLehose approved a plan costing HK$33 million (equivalent to $150 million today) to set up recreational areas in the countryside with trails, picnic tables, barbecue pits and rubbish bins. They quietly opened in 1974. “A complex of country parks has come into existence in the past few months without fanfare and publicity,” reported the South China Morning Post at the time. That initial group of parks covered just eight hectares around major reservoirs like Shing Mun, the Kowloon Reservoir and Plover Cove. The Post mentioned they had been fitted out with “150 tables for picnickers, 135 benches, 110 barbecue pits and 600 litter bins.” It also quoted an official as saying the size of the parks would double in six months “and we hope to proceed at that rate, as far as we can, in the future.”
The effort was helped along when the Country Parks Ordinance was passed in 1976, formalising the new network of green spaces. Three years later, a 100-kilometre trail was established along the ridge of the Kowloon hills, linking up several of the new parks and connecting campsites and other recreational facilities. It was named the MacLehose Trail. Today, there are 25 country parks that encompass the full diversity of Hong Kong’s natural environment, from wetlands to craggy peaks to lush forests. Beyond nature, the country parks also include important historic artefacts, some dating back thousands of years, others testifying to the ravages of war.
There is a widespread notion that, in the 1980s and 90s, Hong Kong’s increasingly wealthy population was disinclined to visit the country parks, especially when they had diversions like air-conditioned shopping malls to keep them occupied. But the number of annual visitors to the countryside grew very quickly, just as MacLehose had predicted. In 1976, just under 2.5 million visitors were recorded; a decade later, that number had grown to nearly 10 million. By comparison, country park attendance over the past decade has hovered between 11 and 13 million. Hong Kong’s country parks have been exceedingly popular from their very earliest days.
Still, there have been notable upticks in attendance at various points in history. That was particularly true during the SARS epidemic in 2003, when many people fled the city for the countryside. “It did seem many learned what’s out there and chose to keep hiking afterwards,” says Martin Williams, a hiking enthusiast who has written about Hong Kong’s countryside for many years.
Interestingly, despite anecdotal reports of overcrowded hiking trails during the Covid-19 pandemic, the government reports attendance of 12 million people in 2020, more than the 11.2 million recorded in 2019 but significantly less than the 13.4 million recorded in 2011. This may be explained by the fact that the government closed many country park facilities such as barbecue sites, which may have had a dampening effect on the number of visitors, even if trails were crowded. Border closures also prevented tourists from coming to Hong Kong and visiting the parks.
Even if it is not reflected in the official numbers, however, anyone who has visited a country park over the past year can tell you just how busy they are. And that exposes a fundamental tension underlying the very nature of the country parks. As University of Hong Kong geographer Jim Chi-yung noted in one of the first academic papers published on the country park system, in 1989, “the small size of Hong Kong precludes a separation, as in Western Europe and North America, into national parks primarily for conservation, and country parks primarily for recreation. Instead, these somewhat contradictory objectives are both served.”
The more people who visit the country parks, the harder it becomes to preserve the natural environment that makes them so special. As early as the 1980s, Jim observed that people having picnics and barbecues had a measurably negative effect on the surrounding vegetation. Dozens of brush fires are sparked by careless park visitors every winter. And every year, the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), which manages the country parks, hauls away more than three tonnes of rubbish – some years, nearly four.
Far from resolving such problems, recent government proposals may only exacerbate them. In 2019, the AFCD proposed introducing tourist attractions such as zip lines and full-service “glamping” sites to country parks. Many conservationists and avid hikers fear this will lead to even more overcrowding and environmental degradation. “It’s denaturing Hong Kong,” says Daisann McLane, who notes that the “trail improvements” in country park budgets usually mean pouring more concrete in natural spaces.
Alicia Lui, project director of the WYNG Foundation, which runs the TrailWatch hiking app, says glamping “would not be good.” But increased country park attendance could dovetail with conservation goals if it is properly managed. “Right now is a good opportunity to raise more awareness about nature education because of the interest in hiking and going to the country parks. It ties into protecting our environment and climate change,” she says.
Paul Zimmerman suggests that new facilities be built in natural areas adjacent to—but not inside—country parks. “The country park boundaries are not necessarily covering all the areas where you would want to make an investment,” he says. “Quite often there is a gap between the road and the bus stop and the country park.”
There’s also the threat of property development. Although the Country Park Ordinance prohibits residential, commercial or industrial development inside the parks, former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying recently revived a proposal to build housing on the fringes of country parks. But as Greenpeace campaigner Chan Hall-sion tersely noted in a May letter to the South China Morning Post, “there is no such concept as ‘fringes of country parks.’ Under the Country Parks Ordinance, their boundaries are clearly defined and one cannot divide their areas into ‘core’ and ‘fringe.’” The only way to develop Hong Kong’s country parks would be to modify the ordinance and shrink the size of the parks.
As with everything in Hong Kong, protecting country parks will require the watchful eye of citizens. And even if they continue to gain popularity, there is still plenty left to explore – and appreciate. “I’ve discovered a lot more gorgeous rock streams and routes where people just don’t go because they aren’t well known,” says Paul Zimmerman.
“The trick is to go looking for places that novice hikers have not heard of,” says McLane. The crowds of people on the main hiking trails have pushed her to explore areas like the Chi Ma Wan peninsula, a relatively remote part of Lantau Island. “It’s a geologist’s paradise,” she says. “You’ll be walking and suddenly the trail will be sparkling. It’s quartz mixed with feldspar.”
“There’s just so many things to discover,” she adds. Just be respectful – and take your rubbish with you.