Put the theme parks out of their misery

May 18, 2020 07:38
Photo: Reuters

What happens when the government gets involved in running massive entertainment complexes? The answer is obvious because everything the Hong Kong government touches has a habit of turning to dust. Things get even worse when these complexes have to be shutdown due to forces beyond their control and the taxpayer is called upon to provide shovel loads of cash to keep them going.

Ocean Park, an entirely state owned enterprise, is threatened with bankruptcy and has applied for an urgent bailout of HK$5.4 billion but made it clear that it needs twice that amount for longer-term renovation.

Meanwhile the miserable failure that is the Disney theme park in Lantau has slunk deeper into the mire as it too remains shuttered in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The difference being that despite public funds having provided the bulk of the investment, it is run by a private company. The numskulls who negotiated this deal with the Disney Corporation allowed the American company to make money regardless of whether the park earned a cent. A combination of management fees, royalty payments and other fees has given Disney earnings that it cannot make anywhere else in the world because it failed to find another sucker government prepared to make a Hong Kong-style deal.

Ocean Park, on the other hand, manages to lose money without paying a cent to a third party in America. Billions of dollars have been poured into this enterprise to make it a so called tourist attraction, catering mainly to visitors from the Mainland.

Predictably there has been whinging from former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying via Facebook, who is trying to use this issue as yet another way of bashing the protests. However Mainland visitors are highly unlikely to return in the numbers seen before last year. Leung, seems to be unaware that the Mainland is now awash with theme parks and that PRC travellers have already set their sights on tourism well beyond Hong Kong’s borders.

The idea that more cash needs to be poured into Ocean Park to lure back these Mainland visitors is plain crazy. It is also objectionable because such lavish expenditure of taxpayers’ money should, at the very least, focus on local needs. Instead of expanding the park and making it even more glitzy, it needs to be transformed into a manageable marine centre with a focus on providing education about the oceans to both students and the wider public.

The government needs to stop obsessing about the number of visitors who can be lured to the park and start paying more attention to the quality of service it can provide, not forgetting the welfare of the 7,500 animals who live there.

As the park has barely ever made a profit, the emphasis needs to be on loss reduction and focusing on what the park can do for the Hong Kong community. This would mean a lot of downsizing but it does not mean that it needs to become a dull attraction.

A lot of imagination is required here and it is fanciful to believe that the imagination-free zone occupied by government bureaucrats can supply it. However we are where we are and simply shutting down the park is not an appealing option. What needs to happen is that the bureaucrats are firmly told to keep their itchy fingers off this project so that some real professionals can be brought in to transform Ocean Park.

The Disney park cannot be transformed because it is a franchise of an international corporation that does things in a certain way – indeed it does what it does highly successfully where it is under the gun to make the parks profitable rather than relying on a government subsidy.

Given the hopelessly bad deal made to get the park open it’s a fair bet that Disney’s lawyers inserted numerous clauses in the agreement that would make it hugely expensive to close down. Nevertheless as continued losses are more or less guaranteed and the park has more or less zero relevance to most Hongkongers, the time has almost certainly come to say bye-bye.

It will leave a deep hole in the public finances but the whole point about mistakes is that they cannot be resolved by endlessly repeating them.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author