China gambles on theme park, whale sharks to lure punters from Macau casinos

China gambles on theme park, whale sharks to lure punters from Macau casinos

By Farah Master

HENGQIN ISLAND, China (Reuters) – It’s being touted as China’s answer to Orlando, a $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 U.S. city globally renowned for its natural attractions and theme-park resorts by Walt Disney Co (DIS.N: QuoteProfileResearchStock Buzz) 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 which 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 $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, director of the administrative committee, or local government, of the Hengqin New Area.

IDEAL SOLUTION

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 the southern 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 ($39 billion) from companies like Hong Kong conglomerate Shun Tak (0242.HK: QuoteProfileResearchStock Buzz), Italian luxury yacht maker Ferretti and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc (HOT.N: QuoteProfileResearch,Stock Buzz).

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, 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.

“We need to work on a plan to assimilate and to make sure that in the future, Macau would be in the center of things but also integrated with the development and the future of the whole Pearl River delta,” Ho, the daughter of Macau gambling godfather Stanely Ho, told Reuters.

The government has banned gambling on Hengqin, but that has not deterred Macau’s billion-dollar casino operators. Galaxy Entertainment (0027.HK: QuoteProfileResearchStock Buzz) is considering investing in sports stadiums, golf courses and a marina on the island to complement its Macau casinos, Deputy Chairman Francis Lui told Reuters.

“The customer is wanting a bigger and bigger experience… and in Macau, we just don’t have the land and it would be too expensive,” he said. “So Hengquin is going to be very important for us.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Hengquin is connected to Macau through two underwater tunnels. By 2016, it will also be linked to Macau in the east and Hong Kong to the north by a bridge. Rail services will also be extended to Hengqin.

Forests of cranes and scaffolding jut out from pockets of Hengqin as companies like Zhuhai Huafa Group Ltd ZHGOVH.UL and Shimao Property Holdings Ltd (0813.HK: QuoteProfileResearchStock Buzz) race to develop the island, where wooden stilt houses still dot parts of the shoreline.

Property prices have soared, with new houses near the central business district costing more than double the amount per square meter than in the nearby Zhuhai island.

Palm-fringed, six-lane highways line the island while residential high-rises are cropping up as the pace of construction has picked up in the past year.

Home to fewer than 8,000 people now, officials forecast the island’s population to rise to over quarter of a million in seven years time.

The marine-themed Chimelong resort, headed by Chinese businessman Su Zhigang, is the biggest project to open on the island this year. Its coral-hued towers, topped by blue onion-domes, will house 1,880 hotel rooms, a conference center, a spa and an indoor water park.

Macau University which finished construction of its Hengqin campus in July this year on a site 20 times larger than its Macau location, will formally welcome students in February next year. The university, which can accommodate up to 15,000 students, will be operated under the laws that govern Macau, and not mainland Chinese regulations.

Major lenders such as Bank of China (3988.HK: QuoteProfileResearchStock Buzz), Bank of Communications (3328.HK: QuoteProfileResearchStock Buzz) and Agricultural Bank of China (1288.HK:QuoteProfileResearchStock Buzz) have set up temporary offices in Hengqin’s central business district to help drive its development.

The island is also hoping to lure business with tax breaks and new financial policies that include allowing companies to develop offshore business in foreign currencies and piloting the exchange of the renminbi, Macau pataca and Hong Kong dollar.

“The special thing about Hengqin is that it is a naturally isolated island, so the risk is controllable,” says Hengqin’s Niu. “Hengqin, without exaggeration, is unique.” ($1 = 6.1220 Chinese yuan)

(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Miral Fahmy)

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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