At least 20 local and overseas businesses are keen to get involved in Hong Kong Ocean Park’s plan for a massive overhaul, according to chairman Lau Ming-wai.
They are interested in opening new shops, food and beverage outlets, and starting sports and adventure activities in the sprawling Aberdeen attraction, which has recorded operating deficits for five consecutive years.
“Everyone is very open-minded in looking forward to the future,” he told the Post in an interview last week. “I don’t think the existing Ocean Park or its performance in previous years has been a discouragement to these partners.”
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The 44-year-old park, once one of Asia’s top attractions, is reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, which kept tourists away and forced its closure for most of last year. It received a lifeline through a HK$5.4 billion (US$692 million) government bailout, but had to close again in December because of the surge in infections.
But property tycoon Lau, 40, who took over as chairman of the park amid the crisis last year, is upbeat.
His plan is for the park to run less than a third of the area that makes up the resort, including its conservation and education facilities, cable cars and the new Water World attraction preparing to open. The rest of the area will be operated in partnership with external operators which will pay rent or share revenue with the park.
He said the attraction would consult the public and draw up an implementation plan after securing lawmakers’ approval for another HK$2.8 billion in government funding to stay afloat and carry out conservation and education work.
Addressing concerns that outsourcing different operations to outsiders could affect Ocean Park’s identity, Lau pledged to take care in selecting partners and they would have to include conservation elements in their businesses.
For example, he said, restaurants could be required to use supplies from sustainable sources and having a shop specialising in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at the park could be a condition for accepting a proposal.
“It will not be a case of whoever pays the highest price. That’s the surest way to lose sight of the mission,” he said.
The government has predicted that the park, which has 1,800 employees, could see a turnaround from as early as 2024-25 if it secures the proposed funding and restructured loan arrangements being scrutinised by the Legislative Council.
At its peak, the park attracted 7.7 million visitors a year. The last time it earned a net operating surplus was in the 2014-15 financial year with HK$13.7 million. Open for only 129 days last year, its revenue for 2019-20 fell 58.7 per cent to HK717.1 million, the biggest year-on-year drop on record.
The transformation plans unveiled last month aim to make the park a financially self-sufficient leisure and retail destination focused on education and conservation, with a variety of outsourced entertainment and other activities.
Visitors now pay an entrance fee of HK$498 per adult and HK$249 per child, but by 2024, they will pay for individual attractions and the services or activities they use.
A lowland area near the main entrance at Wong Chuk Hang will be turned into a new retail, dining and entertainment hub with free entry. With a gross floor area of more than 450,000 sq ft, this is about a third larger than the K11 Art Mall in Tsim Sha Tsui.
The Post learned that those interested in this part of the park included property developers and F&B operators, with some keen to take over the entire area.
Some parts of the park’s headland on the summit of Nam Long Shan will be converted into new attractions, with potential for adventure or outdoor activities such as a zip line.
We want our partners to put their money where their mouth is
Lau Ming-wai, Ocean park chairman
Lau said his team would be open-minded about revenue- and risk-sharing with operators and evaluate the terms of proposals on a case-by-case basis.
“But we want our partners to put their money where their mouth is,” he said. “We don’t want to become a platform where they can try things and fail for free.”
With the proposed changes, Lau expects the park to attract a wider range of visitors.
In the past it drew mainly families with children, teenagers and young adults. He said the overhaul would offer something for every age group, and aim to attract repeat visitors with a calendar of new events and exhibits.
Some observers have raised concerns about the plan to scrap the entrance fee, saying allowing free access to the lowland area may result in the proposed entertainment zone being swamped by low-spending tour groups, and that could put off local visitors.
Pledging that the resort intended to cater to Hongkongers, rather than tour groups, Lau said: “The best way to choose our visitors is through our offerings. If our offerings are very suitable for low-spending group tours, then something’s wrong.”
He said it used to receive a lot of group visitors because tour operators included a day trip to Ocean Park on itineraries and bought tickets in advance, so some tourists felt obliged to come.
Although the proposed entertainment zone would not charge for entry, he pointed out that tourists in a hurry might find other picturesque spots in Hong Kong for a quick visit and Instagram shot, all free of charge.
“Will they really pay the transport fee, come for a picture and then go? Is that really the best use of these group tours’ time? Probably not,” he said.
He added that allowing free access would not mean having no regulations, and the park was unlikely to allow people to come in to have a picnic randomly.
While Lau’s vision will take years to bear fruit, what is nearing completion is a HK$4 billion all-weather water park with 27 attractions such as lazy rivers, an infinity pool and wave pools, expected to open in August at the earliest.
More than half its facilities can be used during winter, and Lau said he expected it to achieve a positive cash flow within three years. Details on the opening, ticket prices and pandemic measures have yet to be announced.
Lau said: “I don’t imagine the ticket will be more expensive than the existing dry park.”
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