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 the 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 in and which led to the agreement to build Hong Kong Disneyland, 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, 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 at a cost of HK$5.55 billion, was supported by loans from the government and private banks.
Even after the opening of Disneyland in 2005, Ocean Park increased its annual attendance, to a peak of 7.7 million in the financial year 2012-2013. Unfortunately, attendance thereafter declined and by 2016 had fallen to 6 million. There was a further slight fall to 5.8 million in 2017 and 2018.
The social disturbances of the past few months have significantly affected attendance and the 2019 figure 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 the Legislative Council 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 HK$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. Perhaps unsurprisingly, reception to the request ("give us another HK$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. It was a very pleasant day out, not very crowded, hence little queuing, and I particularly enjoyed the dolphin show, as did all the other attendees. 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 Macau, now has several theme parks and entertainment zones of high standard, with more under construction. One is called Water World, which I have also visited and which would seem to be a direct competitor to the future water activity area in Ocean Park, now under construction.
I think as a community we now need to face 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 HK$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 a comparable size, providing 40,000 decent apartments and still have 30 hectares left over for green space.
That could include a slimmed-down facility focused 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 mean 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.
Here's an idea: why not reopen talks with the Walt Disney Company, put our HK$10 billion on the table, and challenge them to do the same. With HK$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.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises
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