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Eco-tourism in Hong Kong: its potentials and limitations

by Dr. Cho Nam Ng and Dr. Y. Li
Department of Geography, The University of Hong Kong

 presented at the  Cuarta Feria Ecoturistica y de Produccion 15 – 23 Julio, 2000
Buena Noche de Hato Nuevo, Manoguayabo,  Santo Domingo, D.N., Republica Dominicana

© Dr. Cho Nam Ng and Dr. Y. Li  2000


There is perhaps no other city in the world resembling Hong Kong. It occupies a very small area of only about 1100 km2, but has a large population of over 7 million, and is well known for its urban landscape with high-rise and high-density development. It is often assumed that Hong Kong has few natural resources of its own, yet it has more species of animals and plants than the entire United Kingdom & Northern Ireland. Some of them are endemic to the territory, and a number of plant and animal species are classified as globally/regionally rare and endangered. For example, the Mai Po and Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site is one of the most important coastal wetlands in east Asia where about three hundred species of bird are recorded and several hundred thousand water birds use it as wintering site or stop-over place during migration.

Hong Kong has in fact urbanized only about 17% of its land area, and over 40% of the territory is protected as country parks, special area, and Ramsar site; in percentage term this is probably the highest in the world. Hong Kong has great potential to develop its own eco-tourism. However, due to the lack of knowledge on the subject and interest from the tourism industry in the past, the eco-tourism potential of the city has not been fully explored. This paper will discuss the eco-tourism potential of Hong Kong, and in particular, it will focus on its advantages in terms of its biodiversity, infrastructure and associations with China mainland, and its limitations (physical and geographical). All of all, Hong Kong can develop its eco-tourism industry, but it might have to do it in its own unique way.


Hong Kong is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia. It receives over 10 million visitors annually, who altogether bring in slightly over US$10 billion in recent years. Travel and tourism is among Honk Kong’s largest foreign exchange earners in the service industries (Hong Kong Government 1999). Hong Kong’s tourism industry, however, is currently facing challenges since the Handover in July 1997. The post-Handover Hong Kong saw a steady decline in tourist arrivals; contributing factors included the regional economic turmoil and currency devaluation, the fading ‘1997’ appeal and the misconceptions on social and political stability of the territory. The challenge, however, has its own merit. It facilitates the local tourism industry to regroup, refocus and concentrate on strategies for the longer term, which meant ensuring Hong Kong to return to a better level of competitiveness in terms of attractiveness, cost and service quality.

It is widely accepted now by the industry operators that the long-term development of the Hong Kong tourism industry should focus on diversification beyond the mainstay attractions of shopping and dining (Wen Wei Po Daily, 2000). There is a need to ‘repackaging’ of existing heritage, cultural and natural attractions in parallel with the development of new ones, and greater endeavor to secure and expand on Hong Kong’s ‘consumer-friendly’ gateway/hub status (Hong Kong Business 2000). For instance, feasibility studies to identify and advocate eco-tourism attractions were recently carried out by the Hong Kong Tourist Association, a semi-governmental body for promoting Hong Kong to foreign tourists. Notable outputs include a feasibility study on the development of an International Wetland Park adjacent to the Mai Po and Inner Deep Bay Ramsar site. In addition, more user-friendly tourist guides and information booklets for eco-tourism are published recently (see e.g. Stokes 1999)

Potentials for Eco-tourism

The impression of Hong Kong to tourists and visitors alike almost always associated with the harbor city of high-rise and high-density development. Despite its small area of about 1100 km2 only, Hong Kong has a remarkable array of landforms: precipitous peaks, deep valleys, indented coasts and numerous islands. Hong Kong has some of South China’s most striking and valuable natural landscape. This natural setting also embraces a variety of ecological habitats and a very diverse animals and plant species, essential for the development of eco-tourism.

Table 1 shows the richness of Hong Kong’s biodiversity. The territory indeed has more species of animals and plants than the whole United Kingdom & Northern Ireland (sorces???), its former colonial master. Some of these wild animals and plants are endemic to the territory; in other words, they can be found only in the territory and nowhere else on the planet. Some others are classified as globally/regionally rare and endangered. Hong Kong is particularly rich in avian diversity; there are about 450 species of bird species recorded here so far, that equivalents to about one-third of that of the whole China mainland and about 5 percents of the world’s total. The Mai Po and Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site, for example, is one of the most important coastal wetlands in east Asia where about three hundred species of bird are recorded and several hundred thousand water birds use its as wintering site or stop-over place during migration. Among them, about a quarter of the entire world population of the globally endangered Black-faced Spoonbill (currently estimated at about 700 birds) winters there

The richness in biodiversity of Hong Kong is partly due to the fact that Hong Kong is influenced by subtropical monsoon climate, with hot wet summers and cool dry winters. Hong Kong lies within the transitional zone between two botanical and zoological regions, the tropical Oriental and temperate Palaearctic regions. In additional to these geographical conditions, the well-developed protected area system also helps to preserve and sustain the natural landscape. Despite being so small, Hong Kong has in fact urbanized only about 17% of its land area, and over 40% of the territory is protected as country parks, special area, and Ramsar site (sources????); in percentage term this is probably the highest in the world. The country park system, in particular, has already served the local community for over 20 years. There are a total of 23 country parks and several marine parks. This unique system, with its countless walking trails, lies very close to the city. It provides a convenient place for people to relax and relieve from the busy city life and there are already over ten million visitors to the country parks each year (Hong Kong Government 1999). In addition, being an internationally well-known multi-cultural metropolitan city, Hong Kong has developed competitive high value-added service industry and infrastructures in terms of catering facilities, road access etc. over the past decades. This, with appropriate information and guidance, can well turn the city’s country parks into excellent places for business breaks and short-term tours, as well as good stop-over points en-route to mainland China.

Constraints and limitations

The future of eco-tourism in Hong Kong is promising with all the potentials described above. However, constraints and limitations to this kind of environmentally friendly tourism practice must not be neglected in order for eco-tourism to be successful in the territory. Notably among them are the following.

(i) Strong seasonal factors – due to its sub-tropical monsoon climate; summer in Hong Kong is very hot and humid, hence it may not be suitable for land-based outdoor activities, such as hiking, birdwatching. And in fact there are few bird species reside in the territory over the summer. However, on the other hand it is the best time for dolphin watching and sea going.

  1. Small absorptive capacity of ecological sensitive areas, - therefore the number of visitors is fairly restrictive, e.g. the annual quota for students and visitors to our Ramsar site at Mai Po Marshes is 50,000 only. This is far inadequate to meet the future demands of eco-tourism.
  2. Insufficient information and guidance, lacking professional tour guides – As eco-tourism is still a fairly new concept to the local tourism industry, there are very few published materials and professional tour guides currently available in the market. However the situation will be improved gradually as the eco-tourism industry grows.
  3. Lacking a proactive conservation policy – Although Hong Kong has a very well developed Country Parks System, the government does not have a conservation policy which would allows her to resume or purchase lands under private ownerships for conservation purpose. And that makes many ecological important areas vulnerable to development pressure.
It is a great challenge to making eco-tourism popular among Chinese tourists. This is partially caused by the fact that eco-tourism is still new to tourism practitioners in Hong Kong. However, to a significant degree it is implicated by Chinese traditional ways of viewing nature and wilderness. The general knowledge of the Chinese people about nature and wilderness is mostly gained from its cultural classics - poetry and paintings. Many Chinese people are familiar with many places and landscapes in China theoretically (through readings) even though they have never been to those places. They tend to appreciate nature and wilderness through images illustrated in literature and art rather than harsh physical experience.

To most Chinese tourists, Hangzhou’s picturesque man-made lake, Suzhou’s gardens, old capital cities and palaces, and sacred mountains are more attractive than the wild Gobi Desert, highlands of Tibet, and virgin forests of Xingan Mountains. Consequently, it is difficult to make eco-tourism popular among the Chinese tourists, because eco-tourism is nature based and harsh physical encounter with wilderness is an important component of eco-tourism experience (Beeton, 1998).


Despite the above-mentioned constraints and limitations, the outlook for eco-tourism in Hong Kong remains bright. After the Asian financial crisis, all indications now are that the region’s economies are on the mend (Heng Seng Economic Monthly, 1998). Since sustained economic growth and the rise in incomes are the two major factors driving growth of tourist travel, this pick-up in the regional economy would enhance the recovery of Hong Kong’s tourism industry. Moreover, the sustained growth on Mainland China will continue to benefit Hong Kong, which acts as an important transit city for travelers to and from the Mainland. Under these circumstances, there is golden opportunity now for Hong Kong to develop its eco-tourism.


Table 1 Approximate numbers of wild species in selected plant and animal groups in Hong Kong (Ashworth et al 1993; WWFHK 1994):

Groups Approximate number of species Approximate % of global total (recorded species)
mammals 57 1%
(bats) 21 2%
birds 450 5%
reptiles 78 1%
amphibians 23 0.5%
freshwater fish 96  
flowering plants 1900 (including 120 orchids) 0.8%
moths  2000  
butterflies > 200  
dragonflies 107  



© Kalalú-Danza / Dr. Cho Nam Ng and Dr. Y. Li  2000

Kiskeya Alternativa > Publications > Hong Kong