IT is a match made in heaven – Walt Disney and Hong Kong. One sells dreams and the other makes or breaks it. This relationship was cemented in an elaborate groundbreaking ceremony for the Disneyland theme park at the project site on Lantau Island last Sunday.
All the important characters were present for the traditional shovelling of a sand pit to signify the start of construction work of the HK$14.1bil (RM6.87bil) Hong Kong Disneyland.
Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa, the guest of honour, was ushered in by Mickey Mouse to the VVIP stage where he was greeted by Michael Eisner, chairman and chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company.
Almost every member of Tung’s Cabinet and everybody who is anybody in Hong Kong was present to witness this historic event, especially since this project is supposed to signify a return to the good times.
The territory’s government has been going on about how the Disneyland project will pull Hong Kong out of the present economic downturn that has lasted more than four years.
“Disney’s choice of Hong Kong as a site for its third international theme park destination is a vote of confidence in our city and in our future. It’s the world’s most prestigious theme park and entertainment corporation.
“We are proud to be a partner of The Walt Disney Company in developing Hong Kong Disneyland, which will be a symbol of quality standards, excellence, creativity and technological innovation,” crowed a delighted Tung in his speech at the ceremony that also signified the handing over of the 126ha site to Disney to start construction work.
Tung's enthusiasm is based on a study undertaken by his government five years ago that showed the project will provide 18,400 jobs on opening and up to 35,800 new jobs over a 20-year period.
The Hong Kong Disneyland project will generate an estimated HK$148bil (RM72.11bil) boost to the economy over a 40-year period in terms of value-added benefits, such as employment income and profits for small and large companies.
The report also estimates that five million people will visit the park in its first year of operation and the figure will rise to 10 million visitors annually after about 15 years.
Hong Kong Disneyland is expected to attract 3.4 million incoming foreign tourists in its first year, rising to 7.3 million after 15 years.
Additional spending by tourists should amount to some HK$8.3bil (RM4.04bil) in the first year of operation, rising to HK$16.8bil (RM8.19bil) per annum after two decades of operation.
Tung reminded his audience, especially the people from Disney, that Hong Kong was depending on tourism as one of the major components to re-start the territory’s stalled economic engine.
“In 2002, we welcomed over 16.5 million visitors, representing a spectacular increase of about 20% over 2001, well exceeding our 1999 forecast of arrival level by the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland (in 2005).
“Clearly, Hong Kong Disneyland is our core project towards enhancing Hong Kong’s attractiveness as a tourist destination. Our hard work does not stop with Disneyland, though. We are also working on a range of initiatives to improve our existing tourism products,” said Tung.
The project is modelled after the original Disneyland in California but will also feature some of the best design elements from other Disney parks around the world. Hong Kong Disneyland will comprise four parts: Main Street USA, Adventureland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.
There will also be two resort hotels with a maximum room capacity of 2,100 within the park property.
However, the theme park project is not without its critics, especially the mammoth cost since the government does not have much money at the moment.
The estimated building cost alone is HK$14.1bil (RM6.87bil) and it is being done by a joint-venture company – Hong Kong International Theme Parks Ltd, which will also operate the park. The Government will own 57% of the shares in the joint-venture company initially, while Disney will own 43%.
The Government will also spend a total of HK$13.6bil (RM6.63bil) on major infrastructure works, including roads from North Lantau to Penny’s Bay where the theme park is located, two public ferry piers, and transport interchanges.
A railway line is being built to connect the theme park to the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway system. The journey will take less than four minutes but it is going to cost the railway company HK$2bil (RM974mil). The government has subsidised the construction cost by waiving its claim for HK$798mil (at present value) of dividends that would otherwise be payable by the railway company to the government in the next few years.
This decision caused an uproar when announced in July because the company, MTR Corporation, is not only a public-listed company but also one of the territory’s most profitable.
Despite criticisms of the huge investment, it cannot be denied that the project will be a big boost to Hong Kong’s tourist arrival figures, if Tokyo Disneyland is anything to go by.
Since the opening of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, over 260 million people have visited Japan’s biggest tourist attraction, which is much larger than the one being built on Lantau Island.
However, the people at Disney had already thought about giving its latest park an extra edge – Hong Kong Disneyland will charge less than HK$200 (RM97.50) as entrance fee.
Eisner said: “We have not set the price yet. I can only say it will be reasonable and affordable. I think the speculation (of HK$200 to HK$250) is towards the high end (of what is being considered).”
A one-day passport for those aged 10 and above at Disneyland in California costs US$47 (RM178), while a pass at the park in Florida costs US$50 (RM190).
With such affordable pricing, travel industry experts fear that Disneyland will wipe out other local attractions such as Ocean Park as well as Shenzhen’s Happy Kingdom.
“If Hong Kong Disneyland charges HK$200 for a day pass, it will probably take away 60% of the business from Happy Kingdom in Shenzhen and about 80% of the business from Ocean Park,” Wong Wai Wing, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Registered Tour Co-ordinators told South China Morning Post a day after the Disney ceremony.
Happy Kingdom charges 120 yuan (RM55) for a one-day pass while Ocean Park charges HK$180 (RM87.70) for those aged 11 and above.
The Government, realising the threat to its present best tourists attraction, will spend HK$500mil (RM243.6mil) to build a new attraction called Adventure Bay at Ocean Park as well as a fisherman's wharf at the nearby Aberdeen water front.
One international hotel general manager on Hong Kong Island is more worried about Disneyland being in Lantau Island. “Sure there will be more people coming to Hong Kong for Disneyland but will it mean more business for the rest of us?” said the American.
He pointed out that Lantau Island has the only airport in Hong Kong and noted the plan to build a bridge to connect Macau and Zhuhai.
“These two places not only have an international airport each but their room rates are lower. The casinos in Macau and the cheap hotels in Zhuhai are definitely a threat.”
Cheap rooms, casinos and Mickey Mouse -- what a formidable tour package.
o Wong Sai Wan is Editor, East Asia Bureau, based in Hong Kong (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )