It is being touted as China’s answer to Orlando, Florida, a US$5 billion resort and theme park complete with a mega rollercoaster and a whale shark tank situated on a sleepy southern island next to the world’s biggest gambling hub, Macau.
Chimelong, which is set to partially open next month, is the linchpin of China’s ambitious plans to expand Hengqin into a leisure hub similar to the coastal US city globally renowned for its natural attractions and theme-park resorts by Walt Disney Co and Universal Studios.
And while some extravagant infrastructure projects in China have turned into white elephants, the odds are on Hengqin’s side, largely due to the support of the Beijing government and the island’s proximity to the millions of tourists who throng to Macau every year.
“I don’t have many doubts that it will be successful,” said Philip Tulk, director of equities research at Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong, referring to the island that the government designated as a special economic zone five years ago.
“The mainland people are looking for entertainment and travel options that are reasonably easy. They strongly desire new and interesting places to go and if Chimelong can deliver on that, it will be massively successful,” he added.
The construction boom on Hengqin, just a 10-minute drive from Macau, comes at a time when mega-resorts are being developed in Asia in places like Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam to tap the region’s growing ranks of wealthy tourists.
Most of these visitors are Chinese and many choose to stay close to home, heading to Macau, the only place in China where casino gambling is legal and where gaming revenues grew by more than a fifth last month to just over US$3.5 billion.
Macau welcomed almost 30 million visitors last year, but the government’s plans to increase that number are being stymied by a lack of land and strained infrastructure and services.
Enter Hengqin, which is three times the size of Macau and which boasts long, sandy beaches and thick, mountainous forests.
“Macau is small and there are too many people. It needs to be expanded. Chimelong is a good complement. It is positioned as leisure tourism,” said Niu Jing (牛敬), director of the administrative committee, or local government, of the Hengqin New Area.
Hengqin has been part of the central government’s plan to develop the Pearl River Delta since 2008, and the island is being groomed as a test bed for political and economic projects between Guangdong Province and the special administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong.
The Hengqin model also fits in with China’s plans to boost consumer spending to lift the economy and wean growth away from the manufacturing sector.
Local officials say Hengqin has so far attracted investments worth 240 billion yuan (US$39 billion) from companies like Hong Kong conglomerate Shun Tak, Italian luxury yacht maker Ferretti and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.
Ferretti, controlled by Chinese machinery group Shandong Heavy Industry, is building its Asia-Pacific headquarters on the island, as well as a yacht club and a navigation school.
Pansy Ho (何超瓊), Hong Kong’s richest woman and managing director of Shun Tak, calls Hengqin the perfect solution for Macau. The property-to-transport conglomerate is building a complex that will include offices, homes and a hotel on the island.