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Developing Lantau a delicate task

South China Morning Post – 15 Jan 2012

Hong Kong Disneyland is making great strides towards turning a profit, but it needs to substantially increase visitor numbers before that happens. With an eye on pushing attendance from last year’s record 5.9 million to 11 million by 2022, its strategy is to support and profit from developing tourism on Lantau Island. That is a wise course for the government majority-owned theme park to take, with the island already having a number of tourist draws, several more planned and huge potential for more. Whichever it partners and allies itself with, though, it has to ensure that projects are in line with the authorities’ well-stated policy of sensitively balancing development with protection of the natural environment.

Lantau is Hong Kong’s biggest island and among China’s most beautiful. It has breathtaking scenery, with soaring mountains, some of our best beaches, fast-flowing streams, and wetlands and woodlands teeming with flora and fauna. The views of the South China Sea from its peaks and shores are stunning. Tranquil monasteries, small farming and fishing communities and fine hiking trails boost its attractiveness.

Despite these assets, the government has had a haphazard approach to developing tourism. The potential afforded by beaches, wetlands and hiking and camping remains largely untapped. Instead, the focus has been drawn to Disneyland, the cable car to Ngong Ping Village and the nearby Po Lin Monastery and its giant Buddha statue, Tai O, and the AsiaWorld-Expo convention and exhibition centre. While a conservation and recreation strategy has been adopted towards the island’s south, a concrete sprawl is evolving along its north and east from Hong Kong International Airport, where a third runway is being pushed, to Tung Chung to Discovery Bay.

Every government with an environmental asset that has tourism potential has the same dilemma: how to balance development with preservation and conservation. Plans for the world’s largest incinerator on reclaimed land next to Shek Kwu Chau off south Lantau do not fit that approach. Lantau’s views will be blighted by the waste treatment facility and barges carrying up to 3,000 tonnes of garbage a day. The chance to draw tourists and develop high-standard resorts will be hampered, if not lost.

Disneyland, its future depending on millions of extra visitors, needs more attractions on Lantau to attain its potential. Allying itself with other tourism ventures and encouraging other projects makes good sense. But it, like the government, has to be wary – the reason Lantau is so appealing is because a large part remains unspoilt. Tourism development has to be structured, carefully thought through and sensitive to the need to preserve, conserve and be sustainable.

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