Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of Hengqin Island. This tropical islet, just over 41sq miles (106sq km) and fringed by the South China Sea, has been pretty much off the radar. It would have stayed that way had it not been earmarked for development by the Chinese government in 2009, thanks to its strategic and geographical proximity to both Hong Kong — just one hour by ferry — and Macau, a 10-minute drive over a bridge. Today, Hengqin Island is home to Chimelong International Ocean Resort.
Macau is the only tourism destination in China where gambling is legal, making the special administrative region a cash cow for the Chinese government. Investment in hotels, mega-resorts and behemoth-sized casinos has flooded the former Portuguese colony with developments. But there’s a problem: Macau’s success in attracting hotel and casino operators has eaten up most of the available land on the island. It’s also pushed up real-estate prices to the point where there’s no obvious opportunity to attract developers of large-scale attractions.
Enter Hengqin Island. Designated a special economic zone by the Chinese government, this mainly undeveloped island is in prime position to deliver what’s missing in Macau: a family-friendly leisure anchor. Almost 3,000 companies have already taken advantage of the favourable tax and other regulatory incentives offered by the government to investors who set up business on the island, including RMB50bn-worth ($8bn, £4.7bn, €5.9bn) of infrastructure projects.
The project getting the most attention by far is the Ocean Resort, a world-class tourist destination designed by PGAV, consisting of theme parks, luxury hotels, exhibition centres, shopping, sports and entertainment. Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, Chimelong Hengqin Bay Hotel and the International Circus Town are the main components of the mega-resort, which opened at the beginning of 2014.
Guangdong Chimelong Group, which already owns China’s largest theme park (Chimelong Paradise in Guangzhou), is the developer behind the new resort. It has been loosely modelled on Orlando’s leisure hub in Florida, but this is China, so naturally everything is bigger. In Hengqin, Chimelong International Ocean Resort claims to be have the country’s “largest ecologically themed hotel” and the world’s longest Wing Coaster (1,278m, 4,193ft), as well as a rather heady RMB20bn ($3.2bn, £1.9bn, €2.4bn) construction budget.
For Yanling Yu, a lecturer in tourism management at Sanya University, the opening up of Hengqin will help diversify Macau’s tourism portfolio. “Even with its rich cultural heritage and its recent effort to develop the MICE [meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions] industry, Macau still can’t manage to extend the length of stay of most of its tourists,” she explains. “Government policies indicate that Hengqin is being developed as a destination for leisure and ecological tourism, which is exactly what Macau is lacking at the moment.”
Apart from some children’s shows and a small animal zoo, Yu says Macau is not a child-friendly destination. “It stands no chance of competing against Hong Kong for the family demographic, which is why Hengqin’s Chimelong stands to become a major attraction for this market.”
Making a splash
Chimelong Ocean Kingdom is the largest ocean theme park in the world. The aquarium exhibit in Ocean Kingdom holds 10.7 million gallons (48.7 million litres) of water and includes a whale shark exhibit featuring the world’s largest aquarium window. One of the key attractions at the park, a 68-metre (551-foot) whale shark statue greets visitors as they enter the main lagoon area. The large tank is also home to over 15,000 live exhibits, including a 4-metre (13-foot) manta ray.
A submarine ride, Deep Sea Odyssey, which goes into the aquarium and a 250-seat underwater restaurant called Ocean Beauty are also located in this area.
Ocean Kingdom is divided into eight themed areas, which represent different parts of the sea. Live shows, animal performances with dolphins and sea lions, and theme park rides are the main attractions. At 3.00pm each day, the park puts on a parade of ocean-themed floats featuring over 100 performers. In the polar adventures zone, up to 4,000 guests can be seated in the polar theatre — a thermostatic venue where seven beluga whales and 20 performers put on a choreographed show with music and lights. Every evening the park closes with a fireworks display in the Hengqin sea zone. The show includes lasers, lighting effects, fireworks and fountains, as well as a flyboard performance designed to give the park a festival atmosphere at sundown.
Rides are a key component of Ocean Kingdom. The 67mph (108kph) Wing coaster, named Parrot Coaster, is a high-speed ride that lasts eight minutes, while the Happy Bump Bump Bump, High Speed Warship and Super Splash ride are more family-oriented. The park’s main coaster, designed by Mack Rides, is part thrill, part educational, teaching guests how polar bears search for food in the wilderness before plunging the riders into a valley of ice.
Despite all the excitement, Ocean Kingdom hasn’t been without controversy. In its quest to be the biggest and best, some questions remain over the ethics of the procurement of some of the park’s larger animals. Rumours that it plans to open an orca whale attraction have dogged Chimelong Group, although so far the park doesn’t have a facility big enough to house them and isn’t answering questions about plans to do so. If it does, environmentalists fear it will open the floodgates for rival parks to acquire killer whales too, in order to remain competitive with a Chinese audience, a worrying trend given the number of aquariums being built in the country.
Like Orlando, a themed hotel complements the main park in Hengqin. Chimelong Hengqin Bay Hotel is built on 3.2 million sq ft (300,000sqm) of land a short shuttle bus ride from Ocean Kingdom and shares its underwater motif. Designed by WATG, the 1,888-room hotel and convention centre also has its own leisure attractions to keep guests entertained. As well as a huge dolphin-themed swimming pool, surf pool and lazy river, the hotel also boasts its own indoor waterpark. Guests can take a water taxi directly from the hotel down the Fuxiang canal to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. Hotel guests get VIP treatment in the theme park too, including priority admission and fast-track entry so that queuing, for the time being at least, is kept to a minimum.
Ivan Leung, general manager of Chimelong Hengqin Bay Hotel, says his guests mainly come from within the Pearl River Delta, no more than one or two hours’ drive from Hengqin, including Hong Kong and Macau. The average length of stay is two days and the positioning of the hotel, he says, is focused very much on the family market.
“We see ourselves as providing something different from gambling,” he explains, although he is quick to point out that Chimelong views its leisure attractions, including its hotel, as assets that can help both Hengqin and Macau gain a regional advantage as a tourism destination. “The Ocean Resort has become the most popular attraction of the Pearl River Delta in 2014, especially in peak seasons like Lunar New Year or Labour Day, so the entire region’s hospitality industry can directly benefit from this.”
“We believe Chimelong International Ocean Resort is not only setting the trend for the tourism industry in China but will also boost the local economy,” Leung says. “We want to work closely with Macau to develop the tourism and leisure industry in this region.”
A class act
In the evenings, Chimelong’s International Circus Town provides the entertainment. The 86,000sq ft (8,000sqm) circus stadium is designed to complement the marine-themed park and hotel and faces both properties, providing a bridge between the theme park and the sea. Built to a budget of RMB300 million ($48m, £28m, €35m), the circus brings together over 150 performers and showcases acts from a number of overseas circus troupes.
Bridging the gap
Local analysts predict that as the hospitality industry in Hengqin continues to grow — the Sheraton Hotel is the next to open on the island — some Macau-based hotels will suffer, but having additional hotel rooms close by in peak periods like Chinese New Year will allow more people to gamble in Macau. (Gambling is banned on Hengqin Island.) Likewise, guests that may not have considered Macau as a place to bring family now have a serious, world-class attraction to visit, as well as the gambling tables.
Some Macau operators, it seems, are buoyed by a big-name attraction coming to the region. Melco Crown Entertainment has announced it is increasing the budget for its movie-themed Studio City project in Macau, due to open mid-2015. James Packer, co-chairman of Melco, says his company’s new integrated entertainment, retail and gambling resort has been given a “key competitive advantage” by the anticipated growth of Hengqin. Meanwhile, some casino operators are looking to invest in non-gambling leisure operations in Hengqin, such as sports and retail, to complement their Macau businesses. All of this is good news for Chimelong Group, who stands to benefit in terms of visitor numbers to its theme park.
Currently, Chimelong Group is working on a new mega-resort in Qingyuan, based on the same model as Guangzhou and Hengqin. If it chooses to further develop its attractions in Hengqin, the infrastructure underway right now will help its cause. Rail services to the island are being extended and on completion of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge in 2016, Hengqin will be the only place on the mainland directly connected to both Hong Kong and Macau. For Chinese visitors who like travel to be simple, this will make Hengqin a popular destination.