The Hong Kong government has been urged to reopen designated campsites after keeping them closed for more than a year owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. A local epidemiologist said the city should capitalise on its “zero Covid-19 strategy” to relax social distancing measures when it can.

An online petition calling on the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) to gradually reopen 41 campsites under its management has received close to 5,400 signatures as of Thursday afternoon. The move would help alleviate environmental pollution and public hygiene problems at popular camping spots, the petition read, as well as allow citizens to camp legally as local Covid-19 infections ebbed.

Hongkongers camp in the Tai Mo Shan Country Park. Photo: GovHK.

The AFCD first shut down their campsites in March 2020 and reopened them briefly in May that year, but they were cordoned off again two months later. The closure of official campsites left Hongkongers with limited options – either visiting expensive private campsites, or setting up tents in areas outside of country parks, where there are no proper toilet or barbecue facilities or bins.

Media reports cited in the petition showed campers left behind bags full of trash including plastic food wrappings, bottles, cans and used tissue papers after their trip. It caused “serious hygienic and virus transmission risks,” the petition read.

“I saw a lot of rubbish around the bushes when I went hiking. There were lots of tissues around those toilet spots… it was really gross and unhygienic,” said Shan, an administrator of social media page “Mountain Girl HK” which drafted the petition.

Shan started the habit of picking trash when she goes hiking after she saw an increase in garbage in the countryside when more Hongkongers went hiking amid the pandemic. Photo: Supplied.

Between January 1 to March 31 this year, the AFCD recorded 102 illegal camping incidents and 51 instances of entering closed campsites and barbeque sites, according to a document presented to the Country and Marine Parks Board in April.

The frequent hiker, who refused to disclose her full name in fear of reprisals, told HKFP that the authorities should allow public access to designated campsites in view of the upcoming camping season. Otherwise, the city may see rubbish pile up in the countryside when Hongkongers go camping in the autumn: “I can foresee that, when the weather gets cooler, and the designated campsites remain closed, the situation will only get worse.”

In urging the AFCD to open the campsites again, Shan mentioned that over 67 per cent of the population have had their first Covid vaccine. She also questioned why the government allowed public beaches to reopen but not the campsites, because both are outdoor areas which she deemed should have low infection risks.

Shan finds used tissues in the countryside. Photo: Supplied.

The petition will be open until Saturday and a petition letter will be filed to the AFCD and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department in early November, Shan said.

‘Very safe’ but camps to stay closed

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, the AFCD said the campsites would remain closed for the time being owing to the latest developments of the Covid-19 pandemic. The authorities would monitor the situation and review the arrangements for the closed venues, it said.

“Meanwhile, country parks and facilities including hiking trails are kept open for the public’s enjoyment,” the AFCD wrote in an email reply.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said last month that Hong Kong’s stringent measures have successfully prevented imported cases from spreading into the community. She also said the local epidemic situation was “under control.”

Professor Ben Cowling, an infectious disease and epidemiology expert at the University of Hong Kong, told HKFP that it is “certainly very safe” for Hong Kong to reopen its campsites and barbeque areas in the countryside when the city has no Covid-19 transmission in the community.

“Those are on my personal list to reopen as quickly as possible, because there is very low risk of transmission there, and it’s good to encourage people to go outdoors,” Cowling said.

Ben Cowling. Photo: University of Hong Kong.

The epidemiologist explained that Hong Kong is currently in the mode of shutting out the virus by imposing strict quarantine measures as part of its “zero Covid” policy. The government should consider relaxing social distancing measures that have “disrupted” people’s lives, such as opening campsites again, and reinstate them when there is a community outbreak.

“In Hong Kong, it is kind of unique, we may be the one place in the world that does not take advantage of a zero Covid strategy in terms of relaxing the social distancing when we can,” he said.

As of Wednesday, Hong Kong has registered 12,338 Covid-19 infections, while the death toll stands at 213. The city saw 60 new infections over the past two weeks and all were imported cases.

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.