What should do we with the 60-hectare lot alongside Hong Kong Disneyland? Well one thing we won’t be doing is using it for the originally intended purpose of building a second Disney theme park. That follows a decision by economic development secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah to scrap the plan. Although this was presented as a bold decisive move on his part, the option to buy the adjacent site was always dependent on certain business performance measures having been met (attendance etc). As they have not been, the option lapsed anyway. So what the government actually decided was not to renew it with relaxed conditions.
It is also worth reminding readers that the existing park, and the right to buy the nearby lot, were never the property of the Walt Disney Company. They are in fact owned by the joint venture company Hong Kong International Theme Parks Limited, whose majority shareholder is the SAR government. So the development restrictions on the adjacent site, though sometimes criticised as an unfair imposition by a foreign party, are to protect the government’s investment in the park as much as anything else.
Be all that as it may, we are still left with the question of what to do with the land. There has been much public discussion about various options, including on an RTHK radio show last week. The boldest suggestion was to scrap the existing park altogether and use the entire site and surrounding area for housing. There is already an MTR link, so perhaps we could manage without the Lantau Tomorrow Vision, which has been attacked as too expensive and environmentally damaging. This idea may have some superficial attraction, but there is also a considerable downside. It would deprive many thousands of Hong Kong families of the opportunity of a pleasurable day out together, and reduce the city’s attractiveness to international and mainland tourists.
It would also send an unfortunate signal to the international business community about Hong Kong’s openness to and prospects of foreign investors. After all, if even one of the strongest entertainment companies in the world cannot make a go of its presence here, what hope is there for anyone else.
In local politics you can never talk about one theme park without the other, so naturally Ocean Park came into the discussion. Its core activities are relatively low rise so could we move that park alongside Disney to create an entertainment and tourist node. That could free up the Aberdeen site for other purposes. As has been previously pointed out, it could accommodate three residential developments the size of Tai Koo Shing with space left over. That option would therefore help address the housing situation and the location is already well served by the MTR.
The history of Ocean Park is interesting. There was previously a major water play area attached to it– I used to take my sons there nearly 40 years ago – but it closed a long time ago because it was unviable. For a while the park flourished with predominantly mainland visitors, which tended to reduce its attractiveness to locals. Now here we are decades later and the big idea to rescue Ocean Park’s business prospects is: construction of a big water park. Plus ca change. The recent multi billion dollar bailout will only sustain the park until the middle of next year.
Back in 1998-9 when the Tourism Commission was formed we reviewed our tourism “assets”. The conclusion then was that Ocean Park was very popular with locals, and that some visitors who were coming to the city anyway would also go there. But it was not, by itself, a major draw. What distinguished Disney, and made that investment worth considering, was that its name alone would make us a first-choice family holiday destination and attract visitors from within the region and from as far away as Australasia and India. Indeed so it proved, as Hong Kong Disneyland set out to attract custom from within Hong Kong, the mainland, and internationally in roughly equal proportions.
Which brings us to the present day, with visitor numbers having collapsed by over 90 per cent because of the pandemic. When international trade and business recover in due course, international air travel will also revive to an extent. But what will our strategy be for attracting back other visitors in large numbers. Indeed the first question is whether or not we even wish to revive the tourist industry. Assuming we do, what are our assets? There are lots of fabulous things to do in Hong Kong if you are already here. Shopping and dining are still strong but don’t really make us stand out any longer. Star Ferry, Peak Tram, hiking in the country parks, Ocean Park, bits of old Hong Kong like the Sun Yat Sen Trail. All still good. But when families around Asia are planning their annual holiday, what makes us stand out, especially given the competition from the world class theme parks on Hengqin Island? Right now it’s basically Disney and (soon) the Palace Museum and West Kowloon.
Speaking personally, I would like us to keep Ocean Park if possible. But wherever it is, and with or without water play area, I fear it is unlikely to be commercially viable so will need a recurrent subsidy. A case can be made for support from public funds in the same way taxpayers finance other facilities operated by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
But before we go down that road we need to have a clear vision of what our economy should look like in the years ahead, and what place within that strategy should be occupied by the tourism sector. Resources are always limited, so what are our priorities?