Theme park dreams are built on sand

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 January, 2009, 12:00am

Netizens on the mainland have been up in arms over the plan by Maanshan to rebrand itself as China's 'City of Bathing'. Maanshan's officials decided in December that they could turn the city, in Anhui province , into a tourist destination by touting the delights of its many bathhouses - as if Maanshan was one of the English spa towns founded by the Romans, instead of the steel manufacturing hub it actually is.

Unfortunately for Maanshan, most netizens associate bathhouses with prostitution, not with ancient Rome, and the plan collapsed in the wake of their protests. But it's no surprise that Maanshan's officials wanted to attract tourists to the city, given that almost every conurbation on the mainland that's bigger than a village now seems to think its economic future can be secured through tourism.

At least Maanshan already had its tourist infrastructure - the bathhouses - in place. Many of the towns and cities that are pinning their hopes on becoming the next Lijiang or Pingyao believe that getting people to visit requires them to build a theme park, no matter how bizarre the subject or how expensive it is. If dinosaur fossils have been found nearby, as in Lufeng , in Yunnan province , then a dinosaur theme park is in order. Bruce Lee's ancestors were from Shunde , in Guangdong, so of course the city is building a Bruce Lee theme park.

There are now well over 2,000 theme parks on the mainland, nearly all built in the last decade and most funded, either wholly or partially, by public money. Now, officials have confirmed the long-standing rumours that Shanghai will be the site of the next Disneyland. Not to be outdone, tiny Baise in Guangxi province announced soon after that it will build a theme park to mark the 80th anniversary of the Baise rebellion, during which Deng Xiaoping earned his spurs as a revolutionary leader.

Baise officials were staying silent on the total cost of their theme park, although Beijing has already pledged 20 million yuan (HK$22.7 million) to the project, but the Shanghai Disneyland will cost an eye-popping US$3.5 billion. Despite that, the news that Mickey Mouse will be taking up permanent residence in the mainland's second city has been hailed by locals, officials and economists. Everyone, it seems, is convinced that Disneyland will be the panacea for the ills of the economic slowdown.

But, just as the Hong Kong Disneyland has had far less of an impact on the city's economy than anticipated, Shanghai may find that their theme park will not bring in the extra tourists needed to justify its cost. As for Baise's revolution-themed attraction, it seems set to join such white elephants as Nanjing's cartoon and animation park and Beijing's Egyptian theme park.

Even the mainland's world-famous tourist destinations are struggling. Last year, Xian attracted almost 20 per cent fewer domestic and foreign visitors than officials expected. And, five months after the Olympics, Beijing's 'Bird Nest' National Stadium is seeing a dwindling number of people prepared to pay 50 yuan to get their photo taken on the running track.

The craze for theme parks is symptomatic of the way the central government believes that economic growth can be sustained by massive public investment. Just as Beijing is preparing to spend its way out of the current recession by pumping 4 trillion yuan into infrastructure, so local officials like those in Baise see a theme park as a way to solve the problems of an area where most people earn less than 3,000 yuan a year.

Such short-term fixes are no substitute for jobs that won't come to an end when the railways lines have been laid, or which don't depend on tourism. The funds would be better spent on improving public access to education. Creating prosperity, or the chance of it, requires something more substantial than a theme park ride.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist