All At Sea

When my two eldest children were very young, some 40 years ago, we bought annual passes to Ocean Park for the whole family and visited often. It was far and away the best option for a family day out at that time. As first Commissioner for Tourism (1999 – 2000) I visited again to show support and acquaint myself with plans for future development.

The negotiations with the Walt Disney Company, which l was involved with and which led to the agreement to build Hong Kong Disneyland (HKD), were ongoing at the time. There was concern in some quarters that a new internationally branded theme park would call into question the existing park’s future viability. Fortunately, my friend and then chairman Allan Zeman threw himself into the marketing of Ocean Park and it flourished under his leadership. The 2005 development plan, implemented in phases from 2007 – 13 at a cost of $5.55 billion, was supported by loans from the government and from private banks, the latter partly backed by a government guarantee.

Even after the opening of HKD in 2005, Ocean Park grew attendance up to a peak of 7.6 million in 2014. Unfortunately, attendance thereafter declined and by 2016 had fallen to 6 million. There were further slight falls in in 2017 and 2018 to 5.8 million. The social disturbances of the last few months have significantly impacted attendance and the 2019 figure when published will probably drop below 5 million. But the important point here is that the decline in business began well before the recent troubles led to a sharp drop in the number of mainland visitors.

In a paper discussed at a meeting of the Economic Development Panel of Legco last week, the government supported an Ocean Park management request for a further bailout. The handout being sought was for a one-off endowment of $10.64 billion plus interest-free deferment of past government loans. In return the park would completely revamp the facility and aim to drive attendance up to 7.5 million by 2027-28 (i.e. still 100,000 below the 2014 figure). Perhaps unsurprisingly, reception to the request (“give us another $10 billion and we’ll try to get back to where we were a decade ago”) was less than enthusiastic.

Recently I visited Ocean Park again to see what was going on. It was a very pleasant day out, not very crowded hence little queueing, and I particularly enjoyed the dolphin show as did all the other attendees. It seemed the most popular though I note from the Legco paper this is one of the attractions due to disappear in the redevelopment scheme.

In the decades since Ocean Park opened, development on the mainland side of the boundary has proceeded at pace. Hengqin Island next to Macao now has several theme parks of high standard with more under construction. One is called Water World which I have also visited (full disclosure: I was not allowed to go on the more exciting slides on age grounds) which would seem to be a direct competitor to the future water activity area in Ocean Park, now under construction with a cost overrun forecast of at least $1 billion.

I think as a community we now need to face up to the sad fact that Ocean Park’s glory days are probably behind it, and it is unlikely ever again to attract the vast numbers of mainland visitors that it did in the past, given the competition.

Which leads us to two important questions: is there anything else we could do with the land; and is there anything else we could do with $10 billion?

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. Ocean Park occupies a site of 91.5 hectares compared to Tai Koo Shing’s 21.5 hectares. That means we could have three housing developments of comparable size providing 40,000 decent apartments and still have 30 hectares left over for green space. That could include a slimmed down facility focussed on marine life and the pandas, perhaps run by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Increased frequency of trains on the South Island Line plus a spur to the new ocean-side housing and we have a ready-made contribution to addressing Hong Kong’s criminal shortage of housing.

Which leads us to the second question where I think the answer is also affirmative. We have one facility here that no other city or province in South China can boast, and that is a world class internationally branded theme park. The main public criticism against Hong Kong Disneyland has been that it is smaller than Disney parks elsewhere. (As an aside, I sometimes think the negative comment is overdone: if you are trying to take small children round the whole facility inside a day, having a compact one is a plus. But that’s by the by.)

Here’s an idea: why not reopen talks with the Walt Disney company, put our $10 billion on the table, and challenge them to do the same. With $20 billion we could accelerate provision of new themed areas to complete the first park and even make a start on the second one on the adjacent site across the road.

That would be a resounding vote of confidence in Hong Kong’s future as a tourist destination, both by the government here and by the world’s leading entertainment company.

Some might say I am biased in favour of Disney bearing in mind my role in the original negotiations and my lifelong nickname of Mickey Mouse. But what could be more appropriate as we come into the new year of the Chinese zodiac, in our house known as the Year of the Mouse.

All we need to do now is find a government with courage and strategic vision. That really would be a magical day.