Hong Kong's government went to extraordinary lengths to become the first city in China to have a Disneyland. The Walt Disney Corporation was won over through being offered attractive and generous financing terms. But hosting the theme park is no guarantee of turning a profit, as lower-than-expected visitor numbers have proven. Worse, as far as authorities are concerned, fears of competition have been confirmed with the steady release of information about plans for a Disneyland in Shanghai.
There has been no formal announcement of what Shanghai Disneyland will look like. Attractions, entrance fees and even size can only be guessed at. A city tourism official has said it could be 10 times as big as Hong Kong's version. Given the challenges our park faces in recouping investment and operating costs, every insight into the project is being scrutinized.
The Shanghai official said we need not worry: China was big enough to host three Disneylands. The only competition would be the distance needed to travel to the parks and the cost involved. Residents from mainland provinces close to Hong Kong would naturally gravitate to the one nearest to them. The official's thinking would be sound were it not for the simple fact that even with the whole of the country as a catchment area and favourable tourism policies, our Disneyland is not doing as well as had been expected.
Just how poorly it is performing cannot be properly gauged. Disneyland has always refused to disclose full visitor figures and profit-and-loss details - despite the people of Hong Kong being the biggest shareholder. The government has won a pledge from the company to be more transparent. The announcement in June that the park would be enlarged with the creation of three new theme areas, two of them exclusive to Hong Kong, are among measures aimed at boosting visitor numbers.
Tourism ranks among Hong Kong's three biggest industries. The majority of visitors are from the mainland; they mostly come here to shop. Disneyland was seen as a magnet to boost numbers. But it will only be a draw if it has a reputation for being worth visiting.
Our Disneyland is the world's smallest and expansion is vital to its success. But being bigger will not in itself boost attendance. If it is to shrug off the tag of "boring" that is increasingly being attached to it, the park must have attractions that are found nowhere else. This is especially so in light of rival theme parks beyond the Disney brand being developed in Singapore and elsewhere, and the globalised world increasing tourists' expectations.
"Being different" is a sound motto for Hong Kong Disneyland, but it also has to be embraced by our tourism officials. They must know that tourists are increasingly sophisticated and demanding. Copycat ideas are not enough to satisfy their expectations, nor will they garner return visits or the word-of-mouth recommendations so vital to increasing volume. New attractions would do well to have a Hong Kong or Chinese theme, and our officials should help encourage such thinking. The government has locked us into Disneyland and it has no choice other than to make it profitable. The expansion plans are moving in the right direction. Concern about the impact of a Disney theme park in Shanghai is justified.
Just as with Hong Kong tourism in general, competition has to be tackled head-on by making our attraction as different, appealing and affordable as possible. Above all else, it has to be reflective of where it is located - Hong Kong, China.