Say bon-voyage to long-haul flights and stick around Hong Kong with V’air, a student-led local tourism organisation that aims to save the earth and satiate your wanderlust by taking you off the beaten path.
It’s no secret that Hongkongers are travel junkies. Travelling is not only a hot topic dinner-table conversation but also the go-to activity for most locals looking to take a break from big-city life. But whilst they hop on planes and soar high up in the sky, so with them is the level of carbon emissions. Recent reports have shown that an estimated 1.44 tons of Carbon Dioxide is emitted per person from air travel, which takes up around 20 per cent of the overall emission in the city. Alarmed by this, a group of local college students decided to take action by launching V’air, a growing social enterprise promoting local tourism. We talk to Natalie Chung, co-founder, and Tommy So, operation coordinator, about how they strive to reduce Hong Kong’s carbon footprint by reintroducing to locals their city’s hidden charms.
Back in 2015, when Natalie was still a freshman at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, topics like green living and sustainability were just beginning to dominate the agenda. “Many efforts have been made by advocates concerned with changing people’s consumption patterns and spearheading a greener lifestyle. But the devastating impact of air travel was seldom brought up in the dialogue on sustainability,” Natalie begins. “A lot of people recycle, but they don’t realise a round trip from Hong Kong to Japan already emits half a ton of carbon dioxide per person, which is the equivalent to that generated by leaving a light on for 6 months,” continues the Geography and Resources Management major.
As she sees it, one of the main reason why Hongkongers see the need to jet off to other countries is that they don’t recognise what their city has to offer. “Many people travel thousands of miles to another country for local delicacies and Instagrammable spots. But the thing is, Hong Kong can offer just as much, or even more!” Determined to confront the issue, Natalie teamed up with two of her like-minded peers to brainstorm a solution that would satisfy people’s cravings for quick getaways without compromising the well-being of the environment. And so they launched V’air, an online platform promoting local tourism as a greener alternative to the energy-consuming air travel. “The original idea was to entice locals to switch from vacations to staycations by demonstrating to them, with our insightful stories and visual portrayals of the city’s lesser-known attractions on the platform, how much of their overseas experiences can be attained in Hong Kong,” she explains. This idea won first prize in the ‘HK Tertiary School COP21 Challenge 2015’, a competition organised by the Consulate General of France in Hong Kong & Macau and HK sustainable campus consortium to raise awareness among Hong Kong students towards the issue of climate change.
In the three years since its launch, V’air has evolved from an information-based online website to an up-and-running social enterprise. “A lot of Hongkongers find the city boring. For them, it is nothing but a concrete jungle,” Tommy explains. “Of course, there are things that overseas countries have that we don’t, but it is undeniable that Hong Kong does have its own unique offerings, and we are doing our best to rediscover with the general public the much-neglected speciality of our hometown,” the third year nursing major adds.
To rope in a wider audience, the 9-member team now organise eco-tours for the general public as well as families and students in collaboration with the government, universities, environmental groups and local schools. By holding free tours, workshops and publishing its own book, V’air has amassed over 3000 sustainability-minded folks and participants across its online and offline channels, and the numbers continue to grow. Their website offers a wide array of recommendations and travel tips, covering a variety of aspects from food to historical monuments and spectacular hiking trails. A new itinerary planning feature is expected to launch this summer, enabling locals to DIY their own Hong Kong day trip.
Although the concept of local tourism is gradually gaining traction among locals, both Natalie and Tommy admit that establishing it as the new norm is far from a smooth journey. “Given the increasing number of cheap airlines, the favourable flight ticket prices remain a huge incentive for people to choose other countries over Hong Kong,” Natalie notes. While low-cost air travel may be one roadblock, the unstoppable trend of globalisation is another. “Some people challenge us that our concept goes against the mainstream narrative around globalisation and global exposures. But it is not that we want people to veer away from travelling abroad altogether,” she clarifies. “We don’t undermine the value of in-depth overseas experience, we just ask for fewer trips. A well-planned, long trip is not as polluting as travelling 10 times to Japan in a year.” Roadblocks aside, she is positive about the future. “It may seem like an ambitious goal, but we’ve always believed, if we can get all 7 million Hongkongers to do one tour less, we’ve already stopped 7 millions tons of Carbon Dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere! It really is all these grassroot efforts that add up to create a bigger impact.”
– And yes, all these photos are, in fact, of Hong Kong.