Praying For Plenty Of Fairy Dust

Hong Kong says its new Disney park will sharply hike tourism. Critics are skeptical

Hong Kong has long been a magnet for tourists looking for a taste of the East with the comforts of the West. More recently it has been a destination for mainlanders seeking a dose of Western culture in their own country. And all along, Hong Kong has remained one of the world's most spectacular cities, with armies of skyscrapers marching up its verdant peaks.

So will the arrival of Disneyland in September have any real effect on the city's fortunes? Hong Kong officials and Walt Disney Co. (DIS ) are betting nearly $3.5 billion that it will. With its familiar Disney mix of Sleeping Beauty's castle, Fantasyland, Adventureland, and the like, the park "will bring a lot of tourists to Hong Kong, especially families," says Jacky Cheung, a Canto-pop heartthrob who is Disney's main pitchman in China.

There's little doubt that the park will boost tourism. More than 1.4 million visitors will come to Hong Kong Disneyland from China in the first year, the Hong Kong Tourism Board figures. Last year some 22 million tourists from around the world visited the city. But the park isn't going to become a record breaker overnight. Its projected attendance of 5.6 million in its first year will put it dead last among Disney's 11 theme parks worldwide. By comparison, the four parks in Orlando got 40.5 million visitors last year, while Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea together attracted 25.4 million. Disney, however, says it's more important to get things right early on, then work on attracting more visitors. "As attendance grows, we can expand quickly," says Don Robinson, Hong Kong Disneyland's group managing director. There's plenty of room for expansion near the 126-hectare park, he says, predicting eventual attendance of about 10 million a year.

Still, some critics say Hong Kong is overspending on the park. Disney will invest $316 million for a 43% stake. The Hong Kong government, by contrast, will get 57%, but it will pony up more than $2.9 billion for the park and infrastructure improvements related to it. "Disney is getting a very good deal," says John Ap, a professor of tourism at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University. "It has made 10% of the investment for a 43% share of the profits." He also questions whether Disney can keep the park full. A day pass for a typical family of two parents and one child will start at $103 -- a princely sum even in booming Guangdong province, across the border from Hong Kong, where the average urbanite's disposable income is just over $1,500 a year. "Repeat visitors could be hard to maintain, especially from the mainland market," Ap observes.


Hong Kong officials argue that the money is well spent. The park marks "a turning point for tourism," says Selina Chow, chair of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. One big benefit, she says, is that it will add more families and leisure travelers to the businesspeople who typically visit Hong Kong.

So far, the project seems to be a hit with the public. A survey by Ap's Polytechnic University found that 82% of Hong Kongers support the park. And there's a big effort on to attract mainlanders. The city has earmarked $60 million for a campaign called "2006 Discover Hong Kong Year." It's also planning special queues at the border for mainlanders heading to the park. Disney, meanwhile, has dispatched teams of actors posing as its best-known characters to Guangdong province and is giving away 100 million soft drinks in the mainland in a joint promotion with Coca-Cola Co. (KO ). As long as both sides keep spreading the word, there's a good chance the park will make those verdant hills more attractive to mainlanders -- and justify the billions Hong Kong has risked to lure Mickey and his friends to the city.

By Simon Cartledge in Hong Kong

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