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There are 236 islands in Hong Kong, the majority of which are part of Islands District in the south and southwest, Sai Kung District in the southeast and Tai Po District and North District in the northeast. The term outlying is not strictly defined and in some cases islands very close to Hong Kong Island and the mainland are not included.

Inconvenient transportation meant that development came relatively late compared to other parts of Hong Kong, and many islands are still little affected. Many of the outlying islands are sparsely inhabited and remain largely rural, although significant traditional villages and towns exist on the islands of Lantau, Peng Chau, Lamma and Cheung Chau.

However development has occurred. The island of Tsing Yi became part of Tsuen Wan New Town in the late 1970s, and is now linked to the mainland by several road and rail bridges. In the 1980s, Discovery Bay was privately developed as an upmarket residential area on Lantau, served by a fast ferry service to the business district at Central. In the 1990s, the development of the new Hong Kong Airport, off the north shore of Lantau, led to the creation of a road and rail link to that island and the development of Tung Chung, previously a small settlement, into a new town adjacent to the airport. As a result of this improved access, further developments on Lantau followed, including a road link to Discovery Bay, and the development of Hong Kong Disneyland Resort.

The more rural islands, and still rural areas of Lantau, are popular recreation spots for urban dwellers on Sundays and holidays.