Improving the “balance” between development and conservation has been a government priority in Lantau planning, Development Secretary Paul Chan told an interviewer this week.
The LanDAC report reveals just how well that balance has been struck. The report, issued ten days ago, uses the word ‘develop’ 126 times. ‘Conservation’ appears just 20 times.
It appears that the purpose of Lantau development is development. The language is telling; we could have had a Committee for Lantau’s Future, the Lantau Sustainable Development Committee or even the Let’s Make Lantau Fabulous Committee.
Instead the government put together a team of mostly real estate and tourist industry executives. Apart from endorsing plans for the third airport runway, the East Lantau Metropolis and moving another 120,000 people to one of Hong Kong’s most polluted suburbs, they came up with a menu of tourist attractions demanding to be built on South Lantau.
The allocation of tourist ‘themes’ to 14 different parts of the island has become one of the most widely-repeated parts of their report. It certainly smacks of randomness: a water park for Mui Wo, a wedding centre for Cheung Sha, a spa for Sokos, an adventure camp for Fan Lau.
Not all of these ideas are banal, though in many cases they’re suggesting the bleeding obvious, like religious retreats at monasteries, or camping at Pui O, which already has a camping ground.
But there are clear tensions, like in trying to combine eco-tourism with water sports at Shui Hau. This is true in a wider sense as well. How to make Lantau a centre for development and conserve its wildlife and natural beauty while also shipping in hundreds and possibly thousands more tourists daily?
In its struggle for the right balance between development and conservation, the committee doesn’t trouble itself over this.
It does warmly endorse the extension of Ngong Ping 360 to Tai O. This is an idea solely of the committee, not the cable car operator, which has expressed caution about the impact on the environment and on already-congested Tai O. The new route incidentally would mean tourists sailing over the heads of spiritual retreats in the Keung Shan valley, but this is also not a concern.
Indeed, there is no consideration whatsoever of the limited carrying capacity of South Lantau. Public transport runs at over-capacity in summer and holiday periods and the road network is sub-standard. The introduction of a round-island ferry service could help but that is bureaucratically complex. The report calls for further analysis of transport networks, but numerous studies have been carried out over the years and none have found it viable to build the standard-size public road that is required.
Opinion polls by local green groups last year found that more than 80% of local residents opposed the easing of road restrictions. Those surveys may not be neutral, but they’re more reliable than anything in the LanDAC report, which is wholly lacking in hard data.
It vaguely cites Hong Kong public opinion on a number of occasions, yet the group appears never to have asked any residents of their views on turning South Lantau into a developer free-fire zone with only token protections for enclaves, wetlands and buffalo. Nor does it offer any specific data on current visitor levels and anticipated demand – essential, you would have thought, in deciding the future of Hong Kong’s largest land mass.
Coming up is a community consultation and the formation of a new agency to take this grand vision forward. In a balanced way of course.