HONG KONG – Of all the problems caused by the pandemic, Sisi Wong didn’t expect finding a parking space to be one of them.
The trip to Hong Kong was cut off. The residents were asked to stay at home. In addition, Ms. Wong lived in a remote northern pocket of the territory, where rolling hills were more skyscraper and few visitors dared even in normal times.
But there she was, coming home to find rubbish near her house. Taxis clogged the narrow street and their usual parking lot, which was occupied by a strange car.
“We called the police, we blocked the road, but there are still so many people,” Ms. Wong said on a Sunday as more cars rolled through her tiny village that is now – to her newly found dismay – next to a photogenic reservoir surrounded by weeping willows.
“Before the epidemic, no one usually came, except maybe on weekends,” she said. “Now there are people all the time.”
In tourist magnets around the world, from Paris to the Galapagos Islands, the pandemic has brought a small boon to the relief of many locals: the disappearance of some disgusting visitors. This also applies to the postcard-famous parts of Hong Kong, where lines no longer run out of designer showrooms and tour buses no longer block the neon-lit streets.
But when foreign tourists disappeared, a new, native species has emerged.
Hong Kong people are bored and trapped in an area one-third the size of Rhode Island. They’ve haunted the farthest, once quiet corners of their 7.5 million territory and bullied nature trails and parks with the previously limited crowds to the Causeway Bay shopping district.
Though the subtropical humidity can be unbearable year-round – and despite an abundance of mega-shopping centers that offer ample entertainment never to leave their air-conditioned interiors – Hong Kongers seem to experience the collective thrill of discovering the great outdoors.
About 75 percent of Hong Kong is undeveloped, much of it is a protected parkland that is roamed by wild boars and monkeys. Just outside the glittering cityscape is a quilt of islands and peaks surrounded by the turquoise South China Sea.
Climbers are now in stagnant pedestrian traffic at some of the island’s most popular natural areas, such as Devil’s Peak, a rocky outcrop with centuries of military ruins. Hikers climbing Lion Rock – a steep, cat-shaped hill that offers breathtaking views of the skyline – can sweat without fear as they climb, as the lines for photos are long enough for them to dry off before their first selfie.
The crowd isn’t the only problem. Crumpled surgical masks shape the tracks like a strange new flora. Environmental groups have been annoyed by illegal warehouse fires. The number of mountain rescues by the fire brigade almost tripled to 602 last year, as some new hikers may have pushed their way too far.
“They often take a tourist mindset in the countryside,” said Vivien Cheng, director of community partnerships for Green Earth, a nonprofit sustainability organization. “If someone discovers a place with a very beautiful rock, then that place is doomed.”
Agnes Cheung is one of the youngest converts to the attraction of nature. As a student, she visited Lau Shui Heung, the reservoir near Ms. Wong’s village. Before the outbreak, Ms. Cheung spent her weekends shopping, visiting museums, or playing video games. “Without this pandemic, I wouldn’t even know there was such a place in Hong Kong,” she said.
But she was tired of staring at a screen after so many zoom courses. In shopping malls, “you only breathe germs.” As for the museums – “everything closed!” she said in a desperate voice.
March 6, 2021, 11:15 a.m. ET
“And no more cinemas! No more karaoke! “Agreed her friend Michelle Wong.
So the two of them reached out to Instagram to look for new destinations. They had been drawn to what they saw of the reservoir: neat rows of cypress trees, like soldiers flanking the calm green surface of the water.
But now that they were there, a few things stood in the way of the perfect shot. “We just saw glass bottles there when we were taking pictures,” Ms. Cheung said, gesturing towards the opposite bank. “People are so bad.”
And there was the crowd – skipping stones, picnicking and of course taking photos. “They are everywhere,” said Ms. Wong. “There are too many people out there so you can’t really take your mask off even if you want to get a good picture.”
This is probably not what the government envisioned when creating the landscape parks in the 1970s. The goal was to provide residents with a place to regain balance, according to a government adviser who recommended setting up the park.
For a while, few residents felt this unbalanced. In the 1980s, only around 12 percent of Hong Kong residents said they had hiked in the parks, according to survey data.
In the past two decades, however, park use has more than doubled. Outdoor activities increased after the SARS outbreak in 2003, prompting the government to expand and promote the hiking trails.
Even so, the influx of pandemics has reached new levels. According to government statistics, the parks recorded 12 million visitors in 2020, an 11 percent increase from the previous year, despite public barbecue areas and campsites being closed for more than seven months because of the virus.
The crowd has created a puzzle for outdoor evangelists like Dan Van Hoy, a senior leader of the Hong Kong Hiking Meetup. Of course, says Mr Van Hoy, he’s excited to see more people venturing beyond the skyscrapers. When he first joined the group eight years ago, it had approximately 8,000 registered members. It now has 25,000.
But he will admit that the crowd and junk these days can be overwhelming, even on weekdays. On the weekend – “it’s just, oh my goodness,” he said.
Ms. Cheng from the environmental group was less diplomatic. Some new hobbyists have carried Hong Kong’s famous “consumerist attitudes” into its natural oases, she said, citing the trampled vegetation and illegal dirt biking that once barrened lush hillsides.
The government said it fined more than 700 people over the past year for violating epidemiological measures in the parks and deployed workers to remind people to pick up their trash. Ms. Cheng said the enforcement was not strict enough.
She warned gloomily: “We will need this landscape when the next epidemic comes, so we have to protect it.”
There are still hideaways for those in the know. When the crowd at Lau Shui Heung Reservoir gets too dense, retired professor Tsao King-kwun travels to small villages nearby, where he likes to admire the traditional architecture. It’s a departure from his usual walking route around the reservoir, but Mr. Tsao can be sure the crowd won’t follow.
“Because they don’t know,” he laughed. “That” – he pointed to the reservoir where he thought the crowd would be acceptable for a walk that afternoon – “is pretty obvious. You go on Facebook.”
Those who live nearby have no such escape. Ms. Wong, the villager, said she had been watching tourists pour in and out for weeks, got into the public minibus that elderly residents had relied on for transportation, and ignored the blue police tape that had been strung around prevent roadside parking after locals complained.
The reservoir is famous for its winter foliage when the cypress leaves turn a spectacular orange, but she hadn’t seen it this year because of the crowd.
Nonetheless, she consoled herself with the fact that the number of visitors changed with the seasons and the foliage. “After a while there won’t be that many people,” she said. “They will all go to Tai Mo Shan” – Hong Kong’s highest peak – “to see the bluebells.”
Elsie Chen contributed to the research.