Wrong theme

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 January, 2011, 12:00am

After five years of poor performance, Hong Kong Disneyland finally saw a glimmer of hope, turning loss into profit. Last year, for the first time, it recorded earnings of HK$221 million before deducting interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation. The theme park still recorded a net loss of HK$720 million although the amount was nearly half that of a year ago. The park drew a record 5.2 million visitors last year, which surpassed rival attraction Ocean Park for the first time. It shows that developing theme park attractions is the right way to appeal to visitors.

In order to boost its competitiveness, Ocean Park announced several years ago a HK$5.55 billion master redevelopment plan and hotel projects to revamp and expand existing facilities. Its latest upcoming attraction, Aqua City, one of the world's largest aquariums, is scheduled to open next week. The park has spared no effort to promote its opening.

What it is doing is no different from any other profit-driven commercial enterprise; it seems to have moved away from its operation principles and performance parameters as a theme park.

Aqua City boasts a 15,000 sq ft shopper-friendly, themed retail environment. Besides selling Ocean Park merchandise and exclusive product lines developed by the park, including jewellery, a personal health and beauty store will operate like a convenience store, stocking daily necessities. This week, the park backed down on selling milk powder after criticism that it would go against the park's education and conservation role. It said it could review the decision in future.

Ocean Park's development plans have to follow the guidelines of the Town Planning Board. For example, any retail segment has to be park-related, and in order to operate a retail outlet it has to seek advance approval from the board. Its expansion into retailing business seems to have crossed the line and breached the rules.

However, the park's management has argued that its retail development plan, which includes running retail outlets, had previously been endorsed by the Lands Department, allowing it to sell any merchandise it wants without approval. It further contends that, according to the park's rules and regulations, it may not be able to sublet space but it can form a partnership with other retailers to do business. It says it is diversifying its business and product lines only to meet guests' needs and changing demands. It is believed that the decision to operate these outlets was never discussed with or approved by the board of directors.

Ocean Park has many long-existing management problems. In 2009, it insisted on raising admission prices to fund its redevelopment plan and hotel projects without due consideration of the public interest. It immediately attracted a barrage of criticism and public outcry. I also condemned its decision and pointed out that the park had betrayed its mission; as a non-profit statutory body, it should provide affordable recreation for Hong Kong people.

At present, the management is putting the cart before the horse and going against the interests of the general public and its own principles. Its senior management should not forget that the park is built on land provided by the government and funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

Besides providing recreational activities, one of the park's responsibilities is to offer marine education for the public.

But, under the leadership of its chairman, Allan Zeman, the park is being run entirely along commercial lines, which betrays its founding mission. In 2009, it forced the public to fund its redevelopment, which is a form of capital expenditure that should be undertaken by the operator.

Now, it is running the park the wrong way round; instead of focusing on developing facilities as a marine park, it is expanding into retail marketing, dining and entertainment, turning the park into one big shopping mall. This is unacceptable.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator

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