I have been thinking a lot recently about our two themed attractions, Ocean Park and Hong Kong Disneyland. (That’s what happens when grandfathers have too much time on their hands.) Both have been badly pummelled by the social restrictions introduced as part of the battle against the pandemic. For weeks at a time they have been ordered to close, ensuring zero revenue while many costs, for staff, maintaining equipment, feeding animals etc, cannot be avoided. The result, inevitably, has been large losses. And both are likely to bounce back strongly, at least in the short term, now that the social restrictions are being lifted. Even without tourists, the cabin fever Hongkongers have suffered for more than a year is likely to result in a burst of local visitors to both parks.
But what does the future hold for them after the recovery surge? Global tourism revival is unlikely much before next year at the earliest.
Ocean Park has a special place in the affections of many Hong Kong people because it was our first major attraction, and was home-grown. However in recent years its situation has been pretty dire. In early 2020 the Ocean Park Corporation unveiled development proposals and sought a rescue package of over $10 billion to buy time for implementation. This was later scaled down to $5.4 billion which was approved in May last year to keep the park going for 12 months. At that time many legislators expressed doubts about its long term future, including tourism sector representative Yiu Si-wing who wondered whether the park should be allowed to sell off spare land as per the West Kowloon cultural district to help balance the books.
Even before the year was up, Ocean Park was back for more money. In January this year Finance Committee approved a further $2.8 billion comprising four annual subsidies of 280 million plus a one-off grant of $1.167 billion. Interest payments on loans were waived until September 2028 and the repayment deadline extended until 2059. The fact is the park is on life support in the commercial equivalent of the intensive care unit. I certainly do not envy the predicament my friend and former colleague Tourism Commissioner Joe Wong Chi-cho finds himself in.
The corporation seems to be looking to the new water park to ride to the rescue. It also proposes making most of the lowland area a retail and dining centre to which entry would be free, and introducing separate fees for each of the features there and at the headland. Sadly, I have to doubt whether such a package will bring about the recovery needed. The tactic of introducing separate fees for different attractions is questionable, and I do not agree with allowing the corporation to sell off surplus land to subsidise the park. Capital revenue is not a good way to cover recurrent losses.
Many years ago, there was a large water play feature at the lowland area, which I used to visit with my children. It closed because of lack of interest. No doubt the new one will be a major step up in terms of quality, but in the intervening years there have been changes elsewhere. For example every one of Hong Kong’s 18 districts now has an Olympic sized swimming pool. And Hengqin Island next to Macau has the world class Chimelong Ocean Kingdom which will provide fierce competition.
By all means we should give Hong Kong’s new attraction a decent period to make its mark – say five years – but long term survival will be a challenge.
Some regard the revival plans for Ocean Park as too ambitious: I think they are too conservative, only bold plans can save it. Here is an alternative strategy suggestion: drop the thrill ride section of the headland and turn the whole area over to nature, fauna, flora and conservation education. Relocate to it anything relevant from the lowland area plus the animals and birds from the Botanical and Zoological Gardens in Central as their cages come up for renewal. The latter then becomes simply a much-needed open space while Ocean Park becomes the Hong Kong Zoo. Such a facility would merit recurrent subvention from government funds on education and conservation grounds, and would become much more of an attraction with a distinctive focus. It could even draw in new tourists once that industry revives. Surplus land in the lowland should be returned to the government for residential use.
The Disney joint venture presents a different challenge.. Before the social unrest of 2019 and the pandemic took their toll, the park seemed to be doing reasonably well. The strategy of seeking a balanced patronage of local, mainland and international visitors was proving superior to Ocean Park’s strong tilt towards the mainland market, which had the effect of deterring some locals. The new castle is finished and the Frozen theme area is set to open shortly. Regular refreshing of the product is the key to a theme park’s success as it encourages repeat visitation.
My family recently paid a visit to the park to celebrate a birthday. It was crowded to the maximum allowable extent under COVID restrictions. We also stayed overnight at the original Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel. It too was packed to the gunnels – we got the last two available rooms. Our Disneyland will need some extra support to tide it over the virus-related lost business. A wise government would also set aside additional money, and secure matching funds from Disney, to accelerate development of the next themed area – Star Tours anyone? Soaring over the Pearl River Delta?
Both the United States and the UK have resolved to “build back better” as part of their recovery from the hit to the global economy. Hong Kong should do the same, starting with our two parks.