Amid yet another tough year, Ngong Ping 360, one of Lantau’s biggest attractions, is targeting local visitors.
The cable car business reported a 21% drop in numbers last year as the city was wracked by protests.
This year it has twice suspended service due to the pandemic, re-opening on September 11 at reduced capacity.
Indoor attractions at Ngong Ping Village, such as Walking with Buddha and Motion 360, remain closed, however.
Managing director Andy Lau says he is cautiously optimistic
“We expect that the number of local guests will increase by double digits,” he said. “While inbound tourism is still suspended, we believe that local citizens will occupy a major market share in Hong Kong’s tourism in the short run.”
To spur his campaign to win local visitors, Lau has struck a deal with sportswear brand Fila for what they’re calling the 360 Fila Sports Fest.
It features Fila’s signature candy-coloured themes on cable car cabins and installations, as well as cable cars decked out in imagery of K-pop sensation BTS, Fila global ambassadors.
The Tai O Rural Committee and local residents have asked visitors to stay away from residential areas of the popular tourist village.
The rural committee posted a notice on Friday requesting tourists not to enter residential areas, Oriental Daily reports.
Inhabitants of the historic stilt housing districts, including Yee Chung, Sham Chung, Sun Sha and Sha Chai Min, have posted similar notices.
However, Oriental Daily noted that many of the popular landmarks, such as the suspension bridge and local restaurants, were continuing to attract visitors, while some tourists said they had not encountered any obstructions.
Eddie Tse, head of the Tai O Sustainable Development Education Workshop, said the number of tourists to Tai O had increased in recent months.
He said that while the old stilt housing areas were some distance from the main street, they still attracted sightseers wanting to take photographs.
He said many of the local residents were elderly and vulnerable, and the narrow streets and closely-packed stilt homes could accelerate the spread of the coronavirus. Local residents fear the entry and exit of outsiders will increase the risk of spreading the disease.
The government has abandoned a plan to extend the Ngong Ping cable car to Tai O, but is now considering a water taxi service between Tai O and Tung Chung.
In an interview with Sing Tao Daily, Robin Lee, director of the Sustainable Lantau Office, said improving the capacity of Lantau’s tranasport network was one of its priorities.
He says the government has dropped the proposal to extend Ngong Ping 360 down to Tai O, acknowledging the strength of public opposition as well as financial issues.
The plan of running the cable car through the Tai O valley – mostly Country Park, and including numerous religious retreats – stirred public opposition and was never fully embraced by the Ngong Ping 360 operating company.
However, Lee said the newly-established SLO, a bureau within the Civil Engineering and Development Department, hopes to improve Tai O’s external transport links with a water taxi service to Tung Chung.
The vessels would have a high carrying capacity and a flat bottom, seen in cities such as Paris and Bangkok, to enable them to pick up passengers from Tung Chung and enter Tai O River.
Currently the Fortune Ferry service operates between Tai O, Tung Chung and Tuen Mun. It runs to Tai O just four times a day on weekdays and a dozen times on Saturday and Sunday.
Lee said he was in discussions with the Transport Department to see if the frequency could be increased.
“In the past the concern has been that if the passenger volumes are too unpredictable, it will be difficult to find a company that will operate it on a long-term basis,” he told Sing Tao. He would shortly meet with the industry to discuss how to make the service viable.
Lee promised that “unlike the planning strategies of the past,” Lantau transport infrastructure would be developed in a way that avoided disturbing traditional lifestyles and the natural environment.
Photo: Water taxi, Bangkok
Ngong Ping cable car numbers fell again last year, apparently due to the continuing decline in mainland visitors.
In annual figures published yesterday Ngong Ping 360, a division of MTR Corp, said the average daily number of passengers declined 3.2% last year to 5,254.
With the cable car out of operation for maintenance for five months, the total number of visitors, 1.04 million, was well down on the 2016 level of 1.71 million.
Ngong Ping 360 visitor numbers peaked at 1.83 million in 2014 and have fallen in two of the three years since.
In that time the proportion of non-Chinese tourists has increased from 51% to 57%, while the China share has declined from 31% to 27%.
Ngong Ping 360 says its reaping the of its greater focus on southeast Asian nations, the number of Philippines and Indonesian guests up 56% and 53% respectively.
The total number of visitors to Hong Kong last year declined 4.5% to 56.65 million, with the mainland total down 6.7%.
To boost growth, Ngong Ping 360 plans to launch a “virtual reality and multi-media sensory attraction” series next month, called VR360.
It has announced that it will increase the price of its annual pass by 22% from February 16.
A local business lobby has called on the government to ease restrictions on HK-Macau bridge arrivals to make it easier for them to visit Lantau tourist spots.
Lantau Development Alliance (LaDA) chairman Spenser Au says his group had called on the government to allow tourists coaches to take visitors to Lantau Island attractions, but so far officials had resisted.
He says buses should be allowed into restricted areas to pick up passengers arriving on the 130-ha artificial island next to the airport. If not “there will be a large number of passengers stranded on the island in the future,” HK01 reports.
LaDa, which is backed by major developers and Lantau tourism operators, also urges the construction of a pedestrian link between the bridge arrival zone and the new business district north of the airport. It seeks the extension both the MTR and road connections to Tung Chung and a wider use of ferry transport to the airport and around Lantau as well.
Additionally, Au said the arrival of the HK-Macau bridge can make North Lantau a medical tourism destination. He called for the government to establish a pilot medical centre in the bridge landing area.
Under current plans the HZM Bridge landing zone is intended to support 500,000 square metres of space of retail, restaurants and entertainment.
A caravan park is the latest threat to Pui O’s shrinking wetland.
A local landowner has applied to build a “temporary” caravan and camping ground and “ancillary hobby farm” on a number of allotments south of South Lantau Rd behind the Garden Plus store.
Much of the area covered by the application is currently open wetland and buffalo habitat.
It is a designated Coastal Protection Area (CPA), but Edward Yiu, Legco member for the architectural sector, said he believed a loophole allowed the operation of caravan parks in CPA zones.
If approved, it would be one more blow to Pui O’s besieged wetland, which is steadily contracting as a result of dumping and creeping development.
It would also be South Lantau’s third on-site caravan park. A dozen vans have been available for hire on CPA-zoned land at Tong Fuk since 2013. A second one opened at Cheung Sha last year, though it did not apply for TPB approval until February.
The latest application was lodged with the Town Planning Board on May 16. Just two weeks later the government released its Lantau blueprint that stressed “conservation of Pui O wetland” as one of its prime conservation objectives. But the report went no further than saying steps to conserve the ecologically sensitive site “are being explored.”
The area under application takes an unusual shape for a caravan park, with two sections in the middle of the site excised. Three smaller sections beyond the main boundary are included, possibly for the hobby farm.
The Pui O wetland, a marshy territory of around a dozen hectares between South Lantau Road and the coast, is not a natural wetland but is abandoned and previously heavily polluted agricultural land that has been regenerated by the presence of buffalo. The combination of buffalo waste and the churning of the soil by their hooves in the past 20 years has brought the wetland to life and created Lantau’s iconic tourist attraction.
Despite the name, the CPA does not provide any protection. It has no enforcement mechanism. As a result, the buffalo habitat has been incrementally shrinking every year. Local environmentalists and senior officials agree that the most likely solution is for the government to bring the wetlands under protection by doing a land swap. They see the land swap at Sha Lo Tung, aimed at protecting its diverse dragonfly species, as a significant precedent. It is the first of its kind for conservation purposes in Hong Kong.
Under Hong Kong’s kafkaesque planning laws, only land designated for development can be protected by the Environment Protection Department (EPD).
The EPD cannot prevent dumping on privately-owned wetland but in an equally surreal twist it has the power to approve dumping. A judicial review is now before the courts challenging the EPD’s director’s green-lighting of dumping on Pui O wetlands.
The case has been heard by Justice Au but the ruling is not expected to be handed down for several months.
Photo (top): Proposed caravan site, Pui O
NOTE: This story has been updated to include the announcement of the Sha Lo Tung land swap.
The Ngong Ping 360 cable car is ready to return to service after a five-month rope replacement programme.
It’s been the longest maintenance downtime for the local tourist attraction, which has been running a 6 km cable car between Tung Chung and Ngong Ping since 2006.
The company says the maintenance is complete and the service will restart some time in the next week.
To celebrate the relaunch, Ngong Ping 360 commissioned local designers to create new designs for the passenger cabins using Lantau themes.
It also plans to trial electronic queuing using Facebook and WeChat to reduce waiting times.
The service is coming off a successful year in which it grew its customer numbers by 5.5% despite a 4.5% decline in the number of visitors to Hong Kong.
Photo: Artist Freeman Lau with his design inspired by Tai O dragon boat water parade
After its embarrassing failure over illegal beach camping during last week’s holiday, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) says it has referred the issue to other departments for “action.”
But in an email reply to Lantau News, the department did not explain why no action was taken during Golden Week, when campers at Pui O and elsewhere spilled over onto the beach.
Incidents at Pui O, Mui Wo and Cheung Chau’s Tung Wan captured wide media attention, with some noting that mainland tourists were using the popular Pui O campsite as a cheap hotel and others pointing to the failure of authorities to act. At Silvermine Bay, a local stallholder, Mr Chan, complained to Apple Daily about tourists littering and using the sea as a toilet.
In response, LCSD director Michelle Li Mei-sheung called on people to “comply with the law” – but did not elaborate on how her department would enforce the law.
However, department has vowed to increase patrols of Islands district beaches “as necessary.”
In contrast to its passivity over breaches of camping regulations, which threaten public hygiene and beach ecology, the government has been energetic in laying down the law against live music. The Hidden Agenda venue has been raided by the Lands, Immigration, Food and Environmental Hygiene and Fire Services Departments.
The LCSD says setting up a tent or any structure on one of the city’s 41 gazetted beaches is an offence incurring a penalty of up to 14 days’ prison and HK$2000 fine.
“No camping is allowed outside the camping areas as designated by the management for safety reasons. Camping on any of the bathing beaches, including Pui O Beach, is a violation of the Bathing Beaches Regulation.
No-camping notices have been posted up at all nine bathing beaches in the Islands District, and patrols will be stepped up as necessary.
It says it has set aside 54 camping bays in Pui O for advanced booking by local residents. The other sites are available on a first-come first-serve basis.
The Pui O camping ground has become a regular site of controversy during mainland holiday periods. It is featured on mainland travel forums as a low-cost alternative to hotels and some tour companies lead tours there. Four years ago police were forced to intervene after a small riot broke out as campers quarreled over limited spaces and food.
The Town Planning Board is weighing an application for a caravan park already in operation in Cheung Sha.
A company called Well Power Investment Development Ltd has sought permission to place nine caravans on former Palm Beach site for three years and to build supporting facilities including a toilet, a storage area and a kiosk.
The site covers 3,016 square metres, of which 85% is designated Coastal Protection Area (CPA)., and applies to lots 62, 63, 64, 65, 66 S.B, 66 RP and 67 in D.D.331. The remainder is government land.
One of the directors of the company is Chan Shekmou, an indigenous resident of South Lantau, according to a company registry search by Apple Daily. It says the caravans will be placed on stone and will not impact on the vegetation and argues that the proposal is consistent with the government’s ambitions to make South Lantau a tourist zone.
If approved, it would not be the first caravan park in South Lantau. A site in Tong Fuk with six caravans has been operating since 2014.
Hong Kong government’s has been been identifying sites as Coastal Protection Areas since the early 1980s in order to preserve sensitive environment and natural coastlines.
However, outside the Town Planning Ordinance, protection for CPA-designated sites is not enforced.
The Town Planning Board has set a tentative date of April 7 to discuss the application. Deadline for comments is March 10.
It’s taken a decade but Lantau’s mountain bike trails are getting their long-promised upgrade.
The first phase, due to complete at the end of 2016, involves maintaining the existing Chi Ma Wan trail and the Pui O-Shek Pik and Shek Pik-Kau Ling Chung catchwater paths.
The works reflect an apparent enthusiasm for cycling on the part of Development Bureau Secretary Paul Chan, who is also pushing ahead with the 82-km east-west NT bike track.
The Hong Kong Mountain Bike Association (HKMBA), which has been consulting with the CEDD during the process, welcomes the two phases, but points out they are for beginner and intermediate riders.
“We are still talking, still advocating. We are only focusing on Chi Ma Wan and Mui Wo at the moment,” said Nick Dover, director of trail development.
Notably, the biggest part of the trail, the catchwater path, is not a mountain bike trail at all. By definition a mountain bike track is organic, with natural features and curves and nothing man-made.
The projects have taken a long time to come to fruition. The original consultancy was carried out by engineering firm Scott Wilson on behalf of CEDD, from 2004-09. Those findings were shelved until, with Lantau development on the agenda, Paul Chan took them up.
For phase 1, design and planning are complete and Bristol-based Architrail will begin maintenance work on the existing Chi Ma Wan trail next month. The catchwater paths also need some upgrade, in particular the installation of safety railings all the way along. That will certainly be welcomed by Lantau cattle-lovers and dog owners.
The phase 2 works just announced provide for construction of a training track in an old quarry at Lai Chi Yuen with two connecting paths to the Chi Ma Wan trail. It is set for completion in mid-2019.
Dover acknowledged the HKMBA was slightly anxious about working with the CEDD on these projects. The association had worked closely with AFCD on the Tai Mo Shan trails and enjoyed a good relationship with the department. The CEDD, which ordinarily deals with large public works, is more bureaucratic and commercially-minded, Dover said.
“We’re still a bit hesitant about how this will work out,” he said. “At the same time there might be a lot of different departments who might object to these things.”
He said it was difficult to predict how many riders would come to Lantau to use the trails. Right now about 100-200 people a day visit Tai Mo Shan on weekend.
But for bike riders Lantau is an impressive destination, combining mountain paths and stunning ocean views not far from the city or the airport.
“We believe Lantau has all the ingredients for a sustainable mountain bike destination. It’s fantastic – people are so surprised when they get out to Hong Kong and into the country parks.”