Hong Kong govt in tourism Wonderland

February 23, 2018 17:42
Disney theme park in Hong Kong has posted another year of losses, becoming a millstone for the Hong Kong government, the majority shareholder in the venture. Photo: Bloomberg

The Hong Kong government's Mickey Mouse attempts to play the leading role in the territory's tourism industry have yet again been shown to be costing the taxpayer a vast sum of money. No wonder the administration refuses to come clean on just how much cash has been squandered, with precious little to show for this effort.

Figures just published reveal that the semi-nationalized Hong Kong Disneyland theme park registered its sixth loss in the last nine years of operation. Losses for last year rose to HK$345 million, up from HK$171 million in 2016 and HK$148 million in 2015; even bigger losses were recorded in its first three years of operation from 2009 to 2011.

However it is more than likely that these figures only represent operating losses, and that the real level of losses is almost certainly higher. The Disney press release on its results was studiously misleading and provided no details. The government, the major shareholder in this ill-fated project, hides behind the paper-thin excuse of commercial confidentiality to avoid disclosing the true level of the theme park's hemorrhaging.

We have no idea, for example, what depreciation policies are being used. More importantly there is no disclosure as to how much is being paid to the Walt Disney Co. for royalties, licenses and management fees. The original sucker's deal signed by hapless Hong Kong government officials made sure that the American company would profit from this project regardless of whether the park itself was making money. The Hong Kong government negotiators were obviously somewhere in Wonderland when they signed on the dotted line.

Despite the fact that Disneyland was touted as being essential for Hong Kong’s tourism business, this so-called tourism attraction is now attracting fewer tourists and more locals.

As matters stand the taxpayer will be forced to cough up another HK$5.45 billion for further improvements to the park. Taxpayers are also called upon to finance the loss-making Ocean Park – it lost HK$234 million last year but at least is not saddled with a bunch of payments to another company regardless of whether it makes money or not.

Very belatedly the government has discovered that it may be not very good at running major tourism-related projects and has settled for smaller scale but equally hapless projects such as the fast failing food truck scheme. But it just can’t help itself in throwing money away. In last year’s budget it provided support for the tourism industry by waving fees totaling HK$137 million for tourism-related companies but allocated even more, HK$243 million, for a clutch of promotions to promote tourism.

As ever there is no way of measuring whether any of this money is being used to good affect but the suspicion lingers, based on past performance, that most of money is simply being frittered away.

Rather belatedly the government has also suddenly realized that Hong Kong has its attractions as a place to visit both on grounds of its natural environment and history.

Therefore baby steps are being taken to promote the glories of the country parks and nature reserves – the very places that other government departments are viewing for official vandalism as they set their sights on these areas for housing development. However a really interesting redevelopment project is underway in Lai Chi Wo, a historic Hakka village located in Plover Clove Country Park. More schemes like this would certainly be welcome.

Meanwhile, after years of relentlessly knocking down heritage sites and destroying historic buildings, it has finally dawned on the dimwits in government that the structures may be of great interest to tourists. Unfortunately it might be too late because so little is left and some of what remains has been or is being transformed into – guess what – yes, glorified shopping malls. That’s the plan for the old Central police station complex and that’s essentially the fate of the former Police Married Quarters in Sheung Wan or PMQ as it has been re-designated in the hope of being trendy.

Nevertheless the Tourism Board is now eyeing Sham Shui Po as a place that might be ramped up as a visitor attraction. This is not quite as daft as it sounds because this is indeed a vibrant area and there is no reason why it cannot be made more attractive. The problem is that the dead hand of government bureaucracy tends to conceive visitor attractions mainly in terms of shopping malls.

The Tourism Board and other official bodies have a stunningly poor record for imagination or skill in promoting tourism but Hong Kong, despite the worst efforts of government, still has much to offer for visitors – with any luck there will be no more mega projects, no more attempts at aping the last big thing in America and quite a lot more focus on utilizing the local environment – not least the magnificent harbor-front which still remains largely free of recreational facilities, alfresco dining and all the other things that are begging for development.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author