Shanghai Disneyland is the first major theme park to have reopened to the public since the coronavirus ravaged the world. It began phased reopening in early March, with retail and dining locations resuming operations. Last week, the theme park itself welcomed visitors again – but only a limited number, of course.
It is setting a precedent for theme parks in a post-Covid-19 world. More than 90 per cent of the world’s population now live in places with travel restrictions and this spells trouble for these attractions.
The Hong Kong government has a 53 per cent controlling stake in Hong Kong Disneyland. Our home-grown Ocean Park may go bust next month if it doesn’t get a HK$5.4 billion (US$690 million) government bailout. In fact, the amusement park tried to ask for HK$10.6 billion early this year, citing a need to revamp itself as the flow of mainland tourists ran dry during the months of anti-government protests.
But the park was having trouble attracting mainland visitors long before waves of social unrest and Covid-19 hit the city. It has been losing visitors and money for years. Its heyday – in 2012-13, when it drew a record 7.7 million visitors under the chairmanship of Allan Zeman – is long past.
Legislator and New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee called it a “failed business” months ago, when it was revealed that the park was not only in debt but also running low on cash. At the time, it already had to repay commercial loans of HK$2.3 billion, and a government loan of HK$3.67 billion.
At this point, a HK$5.4 billion lifeline would only keep the park afloat for another 12 months. Letting it live on borrowed time, on borrowed money, will do neither the park nor Hong Kong any good.
This is an old story, really. Instead of quitting while it was ahead, Ocean Park made the same mistakes as other failed businesses before it: it was overly reliant on a single source of income (mainland tourists); it overexpanded while overborrowing; it overestimated the success of over-budgeted projects.
A water park attraction that was to have been rolled out three years ago still isn’t open and will cost HK$1.4 billion more than budgeted. A second hotel is being built, though the first one sits empty.
And, of course, there has been a spate of bad luck. Like many other tourist-reliant businesses, it has faced the double whammy of the protests and Covid-19, at a time when its survival was already in question.
Is Ocean Park too big to fail? Unfortunately for the park, no. Rather, letting it bleed out now could alleviate our collective suffering in the long run.
The harsh truth is that times and circumstances have changed, and the park is simply not “fit for purpose” – to borrow the legal phrase we’ve been hearing since the release of an inquiry commission’s report on the botched and ridiculously delayed Sha Tin-Central rail link.
Perhaps that is why some are falling back on the claim that the park represents part of Hong Kong’s collective memory. But if that is its one purpose, has the park evoked and enhanced Hongkongers’ sense of pride and belonging? Not really.
It has disappointed Hongkongers as much as the MTR has. In a larger sense, the MTR has failed to prove that it is, as an entity, “fit for purpose”, even though the report concluded that the Hung Hom station in question would be safe for use.
Surely the purpose of the MTR Corporation is to build, manage and operate the city’s railway system. The company once made Hongkongers proud, by running one of the world’s best railway systems. But it has since lost its way, by focusing on real estate and rail projects outside the city.
And this is sad – these Hong Kong brands have forgotten the Hongkongers they serve. We can’t shut down the MTR. As for Ocean Park, well, it shut its doors on us long ago.
Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.