10 Asian attraction projects come and gone

We had fun putting together a list of projects that were announced, got media and people excited but never got built or ended up in limbo. China dominates the list; property developers love a big announcement but rarely have funding or a good business plan in place.

Children’s World – Changsha, China

One of China’s biggest developers – Evergrande – announced the US$7 billion Children’s World using characters from China’s deep trove of myths, legends and literary masterpieces. With this price tag, needless to say it never materialized.

BBC Earth and Top Gear – Hainan, China

The two attraction projects designed by Zeitgeist Design and Production with a budget of US$1.5-billion were to be part of a wider resort in Hainan, which was going to feature three theme parks, a waterpark, 11 museums and 26 hotels. They were never built.

Pingtan Art Museum – Pingtan, China

Asia’s largest museum on an island was to feature a glorious futuristic architecture by MAD architects from Beijing and to be a cultural link between China and Taiwan. That link never got built and instead MAD converted its vision into a dynamic small-scale lamp!

Journey To The West Theme Park – Wuzhen, China

Stephen Chow announced the 173-acre amusement park based on his blockbuster movie in 2013 in a line of Chinese property development projects spinning off from hit films such as the Huayi Brothers Movie World in Suzhou, which eventually got built and opened in 2018.

Jurassic Dream – Daqing, China

Designed by Thinkwell as one of the world’s largest indoor theme parks in the remote city of Daqing, the park was supposed to open in 2014 but still stands half built surrounded by high-rise residential buildings. This is a typical example of local governments falling for developers’ scams.

Dufan Ocean – Jakarta, Indonesia

Ancol announced in 2014 they would build Dufan Ocean into the world’s largest marine theme park but to this day nothing has been built although Ancol is enjoying record visitorship in a booming market.

Disneyland – Central Java, Indonesia

In 2017, Indonesian media announced the first Indonesian Disneyland may be developed in Central Java, which got millions of Indonesians very excited. It turned out to be fake news denied by Disney and in fact a non-branded theme park planned by MNC Group.

Nickelodeon Undersea Resort – Palawan, Philippines

Nickelodeon announced in 2019 an “undersea attraction and resort” on Palawan island that would let fans “interact with the brand and the iconic characters they love”, including SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer. It was later scrapped following fierce criticism.

Lionsgate Movie World – Jeju, South Korea

The studio announced in 2017 that it would be opening Lionsgate Movie World, a 1.3 million-square-foot theme park designed by JRA and part of Jeju Shinhwa World in South Korea. But following several restructuring of Jeju Shinhwa, the project was shelved.

Happyland – Long An, Vietnam

In 2011 all eyes were on Vietnam with the flashy groundbreaking ceremony for the US$2.2-billion Happyland project with the participation of Joseph Jackson, father of late ‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson, as the investor of the project. Later, Joseph Jackson pulled out, many facilities were abandoned in the early stages of construction and the project finally opened in 2019 as a very small amusement park.

Do you think any of these projects should have been built? If we were to pick one we would go for Jurassic Dream. Actually we always thought a park that looked like Isla Nebular would be the ultimate immersive theme park experience.

Is Chinese culture a trump card to rival Disneyland?

This is a very interesting opinion piece from Yang Huan, the chief editor of China Radio International Online. I think she provides a great analysis of the ‘war’ on Disney started by Wanda.

The highly-anticipated Shanghai Disneyland officially opened its gates on June 16th. Although there are no official statistics yet about the number of visitors on the first day, one thing for sure is that the US$5.5 billion complex will become a gold mine of Walt Disney, which is eyeing expansion into China’s lucrative market.

It is probably the ambition of the Disney empire seeking to expand its market share globally that is provoking a number of Chinese “patriots” who maintain that China could crush the Western entertainment giant with its own theme parks featuring localized attractions. Wang Jianlin, the billionaire boss of Wanda Group, has already declared a “war on Disney” with the opening of his own theme park in Nanchang, capital city of southeast China’s Jiangxi Province. The project, as Wang describes, highlights “China’s influence in the cultural domain.” He also struck a nationalistic tone during its opening by claiming “craze for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck is over,” saying “the period when we would blindly follow where Disney led has been gone for years.”

Honestly, I am somewhat astonished to hear his nationalistic remarks, which sounded as though they came from a revolutionary period in China. Granted, Wang most likely made this comment as part of his commercial strategy.  But insisting that the popularity of legendary cartoon figures from Disney have vanished is simply a testament to ignorance and arrogance.

I am not going to blame those who claim that China’s theme parks are no worse than a Disney resort. What I am saying is that Chinese culture is not a trump card to play when competing with a Western entertainment conglomerate. In terms of exploring and inventing cultural icons, China can learn a lot from Walt Disney in many ways.

There is no denying that China has a time-honored history and profound culture. Thus, it shouldn’t be that difficult to build a theme park in China with a distinctive character which embeds Chinese culture throughout the centuries. However, these characteristics in theme parks in China are – in many cases – devoid of glamour and charm. In 2010, a theme park dedicated to the Chinese literary classic “A Dream of Red Mansion” opened in Shanghai. Although the novel is known the world over, the number of visitors to the park is much lower than many had predicted.  A theme park built in Hebei province featuring mythological characters from “Journey to the West” is also struggling.

The failure of these parks can be attributed to various factors, among which includes attempts to transplant cultural icons in an outdated manner.

Disney has created a wealth of impressive cartoon figures, all of which are amusing in their own way, and also have enduring vitality. Even youngsters born after 2000 are familiar with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. So going to the Disney resort provides tourists with a unique experience, allowing them to interact with iconic figures. You can sing and dance with Snow White or fly with Peter Pan. The moment you step into Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, is as though a spell has been cast upon you.

In comparison to the iconic figures at Disneyland, cultural icons at Chinese amusement parks are merely decoration. There is far less interaction between tourists and the characters. What visitors are treated to at Chinese amusement parks is a lot of cutting-edge technology. It’s easy to pour money into a theme park. But if it has no soul, it’s doomed to fail.

A review of China’s long history shows there is boundless inspiration for building an amusement resort. But those famous images from China’s unique past are being lost on the youth of today.  Young people today have little reverence for the past. So, it is – in essence – a question of innovation. China’s entertainment industry lacks innovation to create new and recognizable brand.

Disney is at the forefront of innovation, and this entrepreneurial value has allowed Disney create a world of loveable characters. There is a hidden value that Disney can unleash by creating new characters through its existing brand. “The Avengers” is a great example of that. By pulling together different characters from different movies, Disney has been able to create a completely new product.

Last but not the least, the success of Disneyland is also related to its superior customer service. “We don’t put people in Disney, we put Disney in people” is the line used by Disney HR in recruitment and training. Every employee and volunteer is instructed to be extremely friendly, doing all they can to assist visitors with the hope of creating a memorable customer experience.

Tokyo Disneyland staff encourage tourists to cheer as the Disney characters walk past in a colorful daytime parade. There are also volunteers who teach visitors how to take best photos. All the staff at Disneyland are aware of their responsibility and individual roles in the narrative they’re projecting. They are fully integrated into the Disney culture.

There is no need to consider Disneyland a ‘wolf’ that threatens China’s entertainment industry.  Companies in China, such as the Wanda Group, would also be wise to reject any narrow-minded plans to create a Chinese “wolf pack” to take down Disney. As the world’s largest tourism company, Disney has a longevity in its brand. Right now is a good opportunity for Chinese theme parks to observe and learn from their Western counterpart.

If history has taught us anything, it is that we should never take our ancestors’ legacy for granted.  Attempts to exploit our rich history without innovating or adapting it to fit today’s standards won’t work. Confidence in China’s culture is great. But we need not cross a line into cultural arrogance.

The day China became a happier place

So I was one of the happy fews who made it for the opening day of Shanghai Disney Resort, one of the most important days in the history of entertainment in China.

That day I cried… of joy! I couldn’t believe my eyes, my ears and my heart. I was not in China but transported together with thousands of happy Chinese guests to a land of happiness.

One of the Walt Disney Imagineers I was talking to just before the opening told me it was the most immersive park they ever built but nothing prepared me for such degree of perfection.

In his opening speech Bob Iger also mentioned how important the music was for this new park and I must say the soundscape is truly remarkable; from the peaceful sound of nature complementing the beautiful landscape to the superb electro sound of Tomorrowland.

In Shanghai, Disney has taken the multi-sensory experience to new levels and this is what makes it so unique and will gain the heart of millions of Chinese who will want to experience the magic of Disney not as a symbol of the US but of as the purveyor of happiness.

Shanghai Disney Resort is true to its name. It is a resort, a place for families to spend time together, enjoy nature activities (Camp Discovery), let kids play (Treasure Cove’s pirates ships), tweens dance (Pepsi E-Stage), etc. The theming offering so much rockwork and water bodies provides an amazing sense of serenity.

There would be so much more to say about this beautiful park but today on the next day of my visit I just want to say thank you Disney for taking your time to build this gem. Now China is happier place.

REVIEW: Planet J, Macau

Macau has reached a turning point with gaming revenues declining and incentives from the government to make the destination more family-friendly to attract more non-gaming visitors.

Sands China is at the forefront of entertainment-based resorts. The Venetian brings to Macau some of the best concerts, sports events and touring exhibitions (Titanic, Da Vinci, Transformers, Dinosaurs Live). Across the street at Cotai Sands the DreamWorks Experience offers a variety of interaction opportunities with studio characters including a daily parade, photo opportunities and themed meals. Also at Cotai Sands is the new Planet J, the world’s first live action role-play theme park.

Planet J was first announced in November 2014 for an opening in the summer of 2015 but it was officially opened in February this year. The team behind the concept comes from Jumpin Gym USA and their vision is to pioneer family entertainment with a revolutionary model breaking free from the traditional theme park experience using interactive Live Action Role Play (LARP). The total investment is reported at MOP1billion (US$125million) for a total floor area of 100,000sft.

My visit took place on a Thursday afternoon during Easter holidays. Macau was generally busy and Cotai Sands in particular had a nice buzz about it (but not crazy busy like The Venetian used to be a few years ago). When I reached the complex I headed to the information counter but the lady didn’t know about Planet J; she had to look it up in the directory! The park is actually on the 3rd floor together with a food court and a huge toy store.

The main entrance is looking good with a couple of staff in uniforms welcoming visitors in the ‘kingdom’. They were a bit surprised to see me; I understood later the park is actually only soft opened and they don’t get that many visitors, and even fewer non-Chinese visitors.

The first counter is to purchase tickets, which are priced by the hour. On that day the price was discounted to MOP150 (US$19) from the ‘full’ price of MOP1,090 (US$136) for one hour!

Then the second counter is for checking in and collecting devices. I counted they have a total of 30 check-in counters, but only 2 open that day! The devices look like smart phones with an old book cover and the staff can choose the language for you. I am guessing the idea in the future is to collect more data to make the experience more unique. But when I went I was not asked to key in anything. The main purpose of the device is to indicate visitors their scores and when their time in the park is up.

Once equipped with my device I was offered to go in with a guide, which I thought was a bit weird but when I realized there were only 3-4 other families inside I understood it wasn’t much of a problem. I asked my guide and he said that for now they are still testing the model and prefer to have guides either with groups at all times or in the different rooms.

As you enter the park the intricate layout with a ramification of small rooms and a central hub, the theming and the great lighting make you really feel like entering a different world. The park is divided in 8 zones (not all open yet) including the darker ‘Magic Stone Mine’ and the more pop ‘Green Pasture’, where I spent most of my time. I repeat the theming is very well done, which is not surprising since part of the team is reported to be from Disneyland and Universal Studios.

The concept is actually much more simple than what I anticipated when visiting the website www.planetj.com. Each zone features a number of interactive games (200 in total but only 30 functional for now), which are mostly digital tablet inserted into a bigger themed display and some more active games such as hand-gesture fighting, twister and other skills games, which seemed fun to play as a family or a group of friends.

The games rules are not always easy to understand and I am glad I had my guide to explain and save me some time (each game is limited to 1min to complete the mission). The system is not completely stable yet and I had a couple of incidents where my device crashed once and the game froze as I was playing once.

After one hour the screen of my device indicated that the time was up so I had no other choice but to head back to the exit (through the shop of course!) and leave the ‘kingdom’ without feeling like I experienced a revolution in theme parks! And this leads me to my review of the Planet J concept.

First, there is a world of difference between what the website describes and the reality of the park. The exchange of information is only one-way (games sending scores to devices) and there is no role-playing as visitors are never asked to make a choice that will make their experiences unique. Also games are too repetitive and not immersive at all. There is no story building during the park visit. It’s just about how many games one can make in one hour and how much points one can score; very basic gaming principles.

Second, the concept is not fit for the target audience I thought they were going for – teenagers & young adults and international visitors – but more for families with young kids from Hong Kong and Mainland China, which were the only visitors when I went. I would say the reason is the lack of thrill and immersive experience, which one would expect from a LARP park.

Third, the heavy reliance on technology means something is bound to go wrong during one’s visit and that could spoil their entire experience. One more point is the difficulty to deal with 2 devices (which means I had to keep juggling between my phone and my device to take photos for example).

Fourth, Planet J’s concept relies on a new world they have created with magical characters and stories. Although I appreciate the effort, it doesn’t help with the immersion when these characters are not known to the public. I would have thought going for an established IP would have made more sense.

Fifth, the park is probably suffering from too much theming but not enough fun (no live show, no mascots, etc). Also the succession of games with their rules and the staff attending to visitors makes it almost impossible to go wild, which is something one would expect in a park.

Lastly, the business model seems a bit challenging with very limited opportunities for incremental revenues from F&B (no kiosk in the park and no time to stop when visitors’ time is counted), retail (no established IP) or any other services (pictures, etc) since there is nowhere and no place to really hangout and enjoy time with friends and families. Also the instant capacity is limited to 2-3pax per station ie 600pax, which is on the low side for a US$135million investment.

I feel I haven’t been very forgiving with this review but I wanted to be honest and share my views as a professional. I had rather high expectations and I guess I was disappointed. I am hoping it is because the park is only soft opened. If the team can really bring some level of role-play then I would gladly go back and review it again.

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Macau Update in Images

Last year I worked for a client on a market assessment for a project in Macau. This week was my first visit since the opening of Galaxy Broadway and Studio City. I thought I would take a few shots and share a few thoughts on the destination.

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The LRT looks like it’s progressing well. It will link the Lotus border gate (to Henqgin Island) to the various resorts on Cotai and the airport. Completion is expected by 2017. Not many construction workers when I was there; is the government going to delay because of the big slow down in visitorship and casino revenue?

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This is Galaxy Broadway’s main street. Advertised as a ‘vibrant street and entertainment district showcasing the creativity and artistry of the Macau people… delivering a new landmark destination’ it is merely a few shop houses featuring outlets from Macau’s most famous eating places and a fairly poor program of shows (stilt walkers, basking musicians, pedi cab) operated with little conviction. I had lunch there and the crowd was mostly people working on doing business in Macau, very few tourists!

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The entrance of Studio City is very majestic. Here you can see the much talked about 8-shaped ferris wheel.

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Inside the main hotel lobby (on Cotai side) not much difference with other casino hotels. The same heavy luxury interiors with chandeliers, velvet seats, marble, etc. The only difference is the theme is slightly art deco. Although Macau was very quiet that day there was a queue to check-in, which I guess were mostly Hong Kong residents coming to try the next big thing in Macau!

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After walking around the casino (at the centre of the resort of course) through a sophisticated movie-studio themed shopping avenue with not a single shopper at sights inside the shops, you get to the other side of the resort, where the LRT and coach stations are located.

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Here is a mini NY Times Square, which is supposed to put you in the mood for the ‘entertainment’ offering. I was surprised to see a food court facing this square and right at the entrance on top of that; quite a contrast with the high-end shops. The theming is quite well done and it feels different from any other casino in Macau.

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Going up the escalator to the entertainment floor you discover a big empty marble space with a few ‘gates’ leading to the various attractions: Batman Dark Flight, House of Magic and Studio 8 (not open yet). What a let down from the promise of ‘next generation of entertainment driven family leisure destination’. Have the designers been to a theme park? No soundscape, no theming, no greeting staff, and the list goes on!

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This is the entrance to the House of Magic show with a magic themed Chinese restaurant for evening combos. I have no idea how the show is performing and I have not had time to see it. It looks though like they haven’t pushed it as much as Melco’s other show House of Dancing Water; maybe due to budget cuts?

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Another escalator takes you to the Warner Bros Fun Zone. I was not able to go in because not accompanied by a child (Image courtesy of Thinkwell Group). But definitely not impressed with what I could see: a basic kids playground with cut-outs of famous characters from DC Comics, Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera. This is another major let-down; I was expecting something much more interesting for a concept designed by Thinkwell and under license from Warner Bros! And where are the 4,000sqm; they must be joking, it’s tiny!?

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Moving on to the Parisian, which is due to open mid 2016, construction looks very advanced but the building lacks a bit of excitement from the outside, don’t you think? It will feature a high-end European shopping street, a range of family entertainment and possibly a resident show.

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And of course a replica of the Eiffel Tower; here with the majestic statue of Studio City in the foreground. Actually, this picture looks almost good; maybe I am being too critical and influenced by the overall Macau tourism/economic gloom and after all Cotai will eventually emerge as a leading family tourist destination and the Las Vegas of Asia. Time will tell!

REVIEW: Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, Hengqin Island

A milestone event for our industry was the recent opening of Chimelong Ocean Kingdom on Hengqin Island near Macau, which features the 1,888-room Hengqin Bay Hotel, Ocean Kingdom theme park and Chimelong International Circus. It drew some 500,000 visitors during its first 10 days in business over Chinese New Year.

When fully completed the $5billion resort complex developed by Chimelong will feature 12 theme parks and 10 hotels. The Government is keen to turn Hengqin Island into a leisure hub similar to Orlando; Genting is reported to be looking at a site for a future Resorts World project and Galaxy Entertainment is considering investing in sports stadiums, golf courses and a marina.

This could be the world’s biggest leisure hub in the making! It is certainly a fascinating time for our industry and so, being based in Hong Kong, I decided to go for a site visit.

I came in from Macau and it was very quick and easy: I walked from The Venetian to the Cotai Border Gate (10min) and took a taxi from the Chinese side; I reached the Hengqin Bay Hotel in less than 10 minutes and it cost me US$5!

Hengqin Bay Hotel

The hotel is very impressive. Although inspired by Atlantis Dubai it is very well executed and the rooms are very tastefully done.

Hengqin Bay Hotel

Guests have a choice of sea view or park view. The general feeling is very much that of an integrated resort with giant pools, dolphin enclosure (not finished yet) and an artificial river going from the hotel to the circus and onto the theme park with shuttle boats running back and forth.

Hengqin Bay Hotel

The meeting space is absolutely massive and clearly meant to host large international conferences. PATA just announced their 2014 AGM at the hotel in May.

As I was waiting in the hotel lobby before going to the theme park I bumped into The Theme Park Guy – I am sure all of you know him – and so we decided to go together. And there was only us – theme park buffs – to visit on a cold weekday this brand new park! Here is a short video I posted on this blog earlier and below a quick review of the park.

My overall impression was rather good. The theming was of high quality and in harmony with the overall surroundings made of lush green hills. I enjoyed the effort made with the music, which I found unusual for a theme park, more on the classic side, but very pleasant and uplifting.

I was not too impressed with the F&B offering in general as the restaurants felt they were lacking in theming and originality in the menus. Though I would have to give them a few points for the grilled squid kiosks; we enjoyed that snack option!

On the ride side, the massive wooden roller coaster I read about in the press releases was nowhere to be found; they have only one rollercoaster open, which The Theme Park Guy and I rode together and found very smooth. There’s also a water coaster (by Mack Ride), which we were the first ever visitors to ride as we’re casually informed by the staff surprised to see two enthusiastic foreigners.

Surprisingly there was no indoor or 4D ride and the rest of the attractions were all animal-based: bears (including a polar bear), otters, penguins, beluga whales and big aquarium (very similar to S.E.A. Aquarium in Sentosa).

Before leaving the park I went for the A Lo Ha! dolphin show, which was nothing too special but still pretty well executed.

The most impressive feature of the park – and certainly the signature attraction – is the giant ceiling LED screen above the main street showing captivating images of underwater world. Complemented by quality retail and F&B outlets on its sides the main street is a real success!

My final verdict: the park is of better quality than I expected; it is clearly designed for very big crowds with large alleys, walk-through attractions and big capacity shows. It is a bit light on the ride side but that probably gives them room for expansion. And that’s only one of the 12 theme parks planned by Chimelong… Hong Kong Ocean Park and Disneyland should better watch out!

Macau Update: Ritz Carlton, Playboy Mansion, Eiffel Tower, and more

On my way to Hengqin Island I took a few pictures of the construction sites on the Cotai Strip in Macau. I thought you would be interested in the progress. There’s a lot of new hotel rooms and entertainment coming up in 2015!

Galaxy Macau – Phase 2

Ritz Carlton (256 rooms)

JW Marriott (968 rooms)

Highlight: the world’s largest skytop wave pool with lush tropical gardens

Galaxy Macau - Phase 2

Galaxy Macau – Phase 2

The Parisian

3,000 room Paris-themed hotel

The Shoppes @ The Parisian will reproduce Paris famous shopping streets

Highlight: half-size reproduction of Eiffel Tower

The Parisian

The Parisian

Wynn Palace

2,000 room hotel reminiscent of the Bellagio, with a lake at the front entrance lined with restaurants

Highlight: flower gardens in various shapes and themes, such as hot-air balloons, rising to various heights on elevated pedestals

Wynn Palace

Wynn Palace

Macau Studio City

A cinematically-themed entertainment, retail, and gaming resort by Melco Crown Entertainment

2,000 room hotel

2,300 seat theatre

Taubman shopping mall (1.4 million sft)

Highlights: Playboy Mansion, Film Production Studio

Macau Studio City

Macau Studio City

Down the White Chinese Slopes: Trends and Thoughts on Ski Resorts in China

At the eve of opening of the leading winter sports trade show, Alpitec China, I share some of my thoughts on the ski industry in China and my learning from more mature markets.

The different ski resort development models

The French model. Ski resorts are run either by local governments or by concessionaires such as Compagnie des Alpes. This allows for resorts to grow without having to necessarily acquire new land. These large ski areas with high capacity provide ongoing opportunities for private developers to build new villages with condos and retail. Les Arcs 1950 by Intrawest is a good example of a recent expansion at an already established ski resort, Les Arcs, which lead to further upgrade of the ski slopes.

The American model. Ski resorts are the work of private developers who own both the real estate and the ski slopes. Aspen, which exemplifies this model, was started in the 1940’s by industrialist Walter Paepcke who bought many properties and redeveloped them with the vision of transforming this old mining town into a cultural center, whose purpose would be the “renewal of the inner spirit”.  Today the Aspen Skiing Company is owned by the Crown family of Chicago and operates four ski areas in the Aspen region, where the real estate is some of the most expensive in the United States.

Ski resort development in China

I found a very interesting presentation on The Future of Chinese Ski Tourism by Fabio Ries, which gives a good background of the history of ski resort development in China.

Between 1999 and 2008 a large number of small privately owned ski resorts were developed mostly around Beijing and Tianjin. Later, a cluster of destination resorts started to appear in Chongli.

In 2011 the government privatized the Beidahu ski resort in an attempt to create a single-operator comprehensive destination resort alongside other popular resorts in North East China: Yabuli and Changbaishan.

Investors are now looking towards the Urumqi area where the natural conditions make it the only region in China where international level ski resorts can be developed.

Fabio Ries points out the main challenges of ski resort development in China:

  • No existing ski culture
  • Lack of coordination between the various resorts
  • Fierce competition between micro-resorts located around the same cities,
  • Very little involvement of the local communities
  • Short term view of property developers

Integrated all-season holiday resorts

From a tourism development perspective I think the key to success is the emergence of integrated all-season holiday resorts offering a range of activities for all ages and interests.

Here are some examples of how successful ski resorts are approaching leisure facilities:

  • In Avoriaz, the new Aquariaz is a unique water park featuring a ‘hybrid’ concept with natural tropical vegetation in mountain surroundings.
  • French group Compagnie des Alpes is currently studying indoor adaptations of its Parc Asterix and Walibi brands to roll out in its many ski resorts.
  • In Korea, most ski resorts are owned by large property developers to sell condos and memberships therefore the summer offering is often as, or even more, attractive with water parks (cf. Ocean World at Vivaldi Park, Korea), and golf courses.
Aquariaz waterpark in Avoriaz

Aquariaz waterpark in Avoriaz

After leisure comes culture as a growing trend to provide more depth to ski resort destinations. American ski resorts are clear leaders in the field with the Sundance Film Festival in Park City and the Aspen Music Festival. In France, the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival and the European Film Festival of Les Arcs are smaller but still very much part of the destinations’ identities and branding.

The success of future Chinese ski resorts relies on large integrated destination resorts with a long-term vision developed by big property developers with strong government backing and/or more coordination between the resorts to create umbrella destinations/brands with joint marketing campaigns (e.g. Chongli).

So far Dalian Wanda Group’s Changbaishan Mountain Resort seems to be the leading integrated destination resort with golf courses, a cineplex, a museum and a future indoor park recently commissioned to Sanderson Group.

Dalian Wanda Group's Changbaishan Mountain Resort

Dalian Wanda Group’s Changbaishan Mountain Resort

Redefining the ski experience

For the growing middle class in China who has no idea what a ski holiday means and for whom ski is perceived as a dangerous and difficult activity, it is critical to develop an all-inclusive offering based on the unique experience of being in the mountains, very much like Walter Paepcke’s “renewal of the inner spirit”. It does not have to be all about the size of the ski area or the speed of the ski lifts but more about the food, the social/family interactions and the relaxing atmosphere.

Club Med Yabuli, owned by Canadian company China Mountain Resorts, is the only branded integrated ski resort in China, which sells a ‘ski experience’. Everything is taken care of from transportation to equipment, ski pass, and after ski activities with the aim of providing guests with the ultimate family holiday.

I am also very inspired by Le Massif de Charlevoix in Canada, which incorporates a ski area, a unique touring train experience and high quality accommodation in old farm style. Imagined by an ex director of Cirque du Soleil, this unique ‘ski experience’ is designed as a journey through the region and its hidden treasures.

So let’s imagine the future of ski resorts in China…

The Yi family flies into Urumqi from Guangzhou and steps into a Mongolian themed lounge where engaging local staff checks them in for their holiday whilst introducing them to the area and its traditions. The two kids are already captivated playing with educational interactive displays.

The Yi’s are escorted to their ‘caravan’ for an unforgettable Silk Road journey to the resort. When they arrive the resort unveils as a series of themed villages linked by covered walkways (there’s no car!) and nicely blending with the mountain background. The family is shown to their apartment, where everything is ready from ski pass to ski gear. The ski pass works like Disney’s MyMagic+ and can be used at retail outlets and restaurants or to book activities.

Mrs Yi is an avid skier and spends all day on the slopes with newly met friends while the kids are taking morning ski lessons and spend all afternoon at the indoor kids park, learning about local crafts and living the life of young Mongolian kids in the old days. Mr Yi enjoys discovering the area during walks with local guides.

At night Mrs Yi opts for the Yurt Mongolian Spa while Mr Yi takes the kids shopping. There’re all the brands Mum likes and an amazing choice of local souvenirs for family and friends back in Guangzhou! The kids really enjoy all the street displays, art installations and live performers.

For dinner the Yi’s love going as a family to this themed restaurant serving local delights made with organically farmed ingredients and where Mongolian animation characters come alive, dance, play and engage in conversations with guests. The kids can’t get enough of it and Mr and Mrs Yi are so happy this will leave great visual memories of their great holiday.

At the end of the week the Yi’s go back to Guangzhou and can’t wait for their next yearly winter mountain holiday… they might even try a summer mountain holiday once!

How did you like that? How would YOU imagine the future of ski resorts in China?

Cultural Tourism City: China’s new model of lifestyle urban center

China’s richest man and his group, Dalian Wanda, are making the headlines with a series of Cultural Tourism City projects announced throughout China: Wuhan, Harbin, Nanchang, Hefei, Qingdao, Wuxi, Guilin.

Although it sounds a bit strange in English, the term makes a lot more sense in Chinese. It defines a new urban center where cultural elements such as museums, shows, themed attractions and restaurants, lifestyle retail, etc are forming an attractive and creative environment – branded as a destination – for the enjoyment of visitors, both locals and tourists.

It is not too different from ‘urban renewal projects’ in the West (e.g. Sydney Darling Harbour, London South Bank, Paris Bercy Village), except the driving force is not that of a city government trying to ‘revive’ abandoned areas and generate growth but that of a property developer trying to make profit through retail and residential sales.

I decided to go to Shenzhen, just outside of Hong Kong, to experience some of the precursors of the Cultural Tourism City, before Dalian Wanda invented the term. My first stop was OCT Harbour, the latest development from China’s leading theme park operator.

OCT, which means Overseas Chinese Town, is a Shenzhen-based company, which was the first to develop large theme parks (Happy Valley, Windows of the World, etc) in return for land to build large-scale residential areas.

OCT is probably the most experience Chinese company in building tourist attractions. And OCT Harbour is no exception. The development surrounds an artificial lake and comprises a massive visitor center, lifestyle mall, bar street, IMAX cinema, aquarium and more.

Foreign consultants (incl. AECOM) advised OCT for this new venture and it shows. When walking around – and for someone who has travelled a bit – it feels like a mix of Sydney Darling Harbour, Shanghai Xintiandi and Disney World Showcase in Orlando.

OCT fulfills its cultural mission. There is a rich offering for kids with the nightly WaterShow, Myrules World role-playing amusement center, Dream Aquarium and IBOBI – ‘an international learning and development center which focuses on the early childhood development of 0-6 years old kids and their parents incorporating education, science, technology and art with interactive entertainment media’ – and for adults there is the giant IMAX theatre, a small art exhibition space in the mall and the beautiful pebble-shaped “Creative Exhibition Centre”.

Here is a video for you to get a feel for OCT Harbour. I went on a Tuesday night and it was a bit empty; the mall had just opened and not all tenants had moved in. It looked like a metro station was under construction at the entrance, which will definitely help drive more traffic.

Next stop was Sea World, a China Merchants Group development a bit further West from OCT Harbour and also near the coast.

China Merchants is the owner of a huge piece of land in the area; they started with a themed central plaza housing food & beverage outlets and the Minghua Cruise boat permanently moored and turned into a boutique hotel. Recently a swanky luxury hotel under the Hilton brand was added together with a large L-shaped open-style retail area. A number of residential buildings are under construction all around, of course.

The new Sea World experience is similar to OCT Harbour with an artificial lake and a cultural & lifestyle offering: panoramic open fountain show, IMAX cinema, restaurant and bar street. The developer is also under discussions with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) to develop a new design museum.

Sea World, Shenzhen by China Merchants Group

Sea World, Shenzhen by China Merchants Group

I picked up the brochure and found the description – poorly translated from Chinese – of the development very insightful: ‘The urban landmark of Shenzhen. It gathers most charming elements in life, and becomes a model in terms of city upgrade and leisure block culture reforming’. Underlying is the strong push in China for soft power, which commands a change in focus from simple amusement to things more cultural and lifestyle.

Before leaving Shenzhen I went to see the site of the future Upper Hills. This development to be completed in 2017 will comprise office towers, a residential complex, significant retail and extensive outdoor space and parkland.

Upper Hills, Shenzhen by Shum Yip Land

Upper Hills, Shenzhen by Shum Yip Land

According to its developer – a subsidiary of the Shenzhen government – it should become the premier lifestyle destination for the local community and the Southern China district (meaning tourists). Slightly more vertical – with two of the city’s highest towers – Upper Hills shares the same needs as OCT Harbour and Sea World, which is to sell (more) expensive residential units and drive traffic for tenants paying high(er) rent; and the new ‘model’ is the Cultural Tourism City, isn’t it!

Now back to Dalian Wanda, which triggered my visit to Shenzhen and this article. Their ambitions are very high but when one looks in details at what they plan for their Cultural Tourism City projects, it does not seem too different from what can be found at OCT Harbour and Sea World: hotels, lifestyle mall, IMAX cinema, bar street, stage show (in collaboration with Franco Dragone) and indoor entertainment center.

The difference is that Dalian Wanda plan to go into lesser-developed areas – Shenzhen is very different from the rest of the country – and are very good at communicating on their ‘cultural’ contribution to these cities. For example, they formed the Wanda Cultural Tourism Planning & Research Institute as an attempt to ‘own’ the Cultural Tourism City model and above all legitimize the access to prime sites in China’s key cities.

I am personally yet to be convinced that the Cultural Tourism City model works and that these new cities are sustainable for the needs of the future generations. It is a tough exercise when one developer, whose attention can easily shift, owns the entire real estate. I have seen too many ‘abandoned’ buildings, and even entire neighborhoods, in China.

Chimelong International Circus and why Hong Kong should have a circus

On a recent trip to Guangzhou I decided to take my friends to the Chimelong International Circus, which was my best memory from a previous trip in 2010. I remembered the massive circus tent, the sheer number of international artists and the smiles on these Chinese kids faces.

We stayed 2 days, 1 night and I thought the circus would be a nice thing to do at night, something with a ‘sense of place’ unique to Guangzhou and a safe bet for good entertainment. And it just met my expectations. The show had changed since I last saw it but there were still many overseas artists, mostly from Eastern Europe. The rhythm was excellent with fast and loud numbers alternating with slower and more poetic ones. Most animals from the nearby zoo also part of Chimelong Resort appeared on stage but no apparent cruelty or disrespect.

I am a resident of Hong Kong and I have always thought we lacked of entertainment for tourists. So here is why  Hong Kong should have a circus too:

– Circus can mix local  and international numbers, therefore providing a ‘sense of place’ together with an international feel (critical for visitors to Hong Kong)

– Circus are easy to update and therefore attract repeat visitors (something Hong Kong will need to start working on sooner or later)

– Circus are for all ages: families with young kids, young couples on a date, elderly groups (all seen in Guangzhou)

– Circus are the must-see evening show in many cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou

Do you agree with me? Now here are a few pictures of the Chimelong International Circus if you haven’t been before, hoping it will rally you to my cause:

Very poetic moment: dancers dropping down in transparent plastic bubbles

Very poetic moment: dancers dropping down in transparent plastic bubbles

Elephants dancing

Elephants dancing

Parade in the middle of the audience

Parade in the middle of the audience

Another poetic moment. Just before the room lights up with dozens of artists falling from the sky

Another poetic moment. Just before the room lights up with dozens of artists falling from the sky

DRAMA

DRAMA!

The most popular number: great showmen

The most popular number: great showmen

Finale: a bit disappointing

Finale