• Fri
  • Jul 25, 2014
  • Updated: 8:24am
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 3:27am

Like an Arabian fantasy, Hengqin plan just nonsense

Sleepy farming villages in the Pearl River Delta area have been turned into bustling metropolises, but the trick can't be performed ad infinitum

"Hengqin now has about 7,000 residents and we target 280,000 by 2020. Our planned facilities, due to be completed in the next few years, will be able to handle 20 million to 30 million visitors every year. In the longer run, we will be able to hand 60 million visitors a year."

Niu Jing, director of the administrative committee of the Hengqin New Area
SCMP Business, Aug 12

Sometimes I get the feeling that I'm living in a high old fantasy from the Arabian Nights. A magician casually waves one hand, and there, in front of me, is a sumptuous palace made of gold.

"Not good enough," say I, being in character with the Arabian Nights. "I want something even bigger."

"Very well," says the magician. He waves his other hand and, out of nothing, there appears a palace twice as large made of diamonds. Ho-hum.

The curious thing, of course, is that if a miracle of this kind has ever been performed anywhere in the world, it has been done in the Pearl River Delta.

When I immigrated to this town many decades ago, one of the first things I did was take a bus tour of the New Territories. At Lok Ma Chau a wooden platform had been built to allow tourists a view across the border. I saw some vegetable farmers at work and, in the distance, a few two-storey grey buildings - "Wow, I can see Red China."

And then came along the magician.

Believer as I might be in this form of magic, however, I think it is time to put some perspective on things. Visitor arrivals at 30 million a year is the level of tourism which Britain enjoys at present. It is more than all of China gets if you take out visitors from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. It is more than three times Japan's visitor arrival numbers.

And if we are to dream 60 million visitors a year ("We want something even bigger," Hengqin Island has told the magician), well, we get the level of visitor arrivals to the United States. Only France with over 80 million visitors a year clearly does better.

It's not a bad prospect on the whole for the world's soon-to-be second-largest visitor destination. France may still be No1 but it has an area of 675,000 square kilometres - Hengqin Island comprises only 106 square kilometres. On a visitor per square kilometre basis, Hengqin Island will clearly outrank France by a wide margin.

It beats France on visitor-to-resident population counts too. France has a population of 63.7 million. In seven years' time, Hengqin Island will have 280,000, representing a compound annual growth rate of 70 per cent (France 0.6 per cent) from the present level of 7,000 inhabitants. In just 31 years, Hengqin Island will have a bigger population than France. It's true. Do the maths.

What I fear is the return of the magician one too many times. It always happens in these old fairy tales when the beneficiary of the magic gets too ambitious. The magician then sets everything back to where it was in the beginning.

And it happens in more than fairy tales alone. Around the world there are plenty of ghost towns that were once the focus of economic boom and then which lost it all.

Take only the most recent, the city of Detroit in the US, which has just declared bankruptcy. Seventy years ago it was the most booming place in the world, Motor City, the car capital of the world, the arsenal of democracy for the second world war. In another 70 years, the wild forests will have it again.

Hengqin Island, not to put too fine a point on it, consists of a half disused gravel pit and a half reclaimed mud hole. It hopes to make itself an academic centre through construction of a university for 10,000, plus medical centre, plus technology centre and, oh yes, financial centre too, etc, etc, etc.

The buildings are there but the occupants are a good deal less evident.

To my eyes, during a recent visit to neighbouring Coloane, the place had the look of another big impending non-performing loan.

In short, I'm not a believer.



For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

There have been too many naysayers when it comes to China. Mr van der Kamp is just one of them. Let's give it a little time, say ten years, and see if he was right about Hengqin.
I can't tell for sure if China is going to collapse economically. I'm not sure anyone can, because according to the definitive book on the history of economic folly "This time is different" collapses can happen at different levels of indebtedness depending on confidence.
Still, travelling around China I see a lot of very dubious looking investments. This week I have been in Jiangxi, Jiujiang and Anhui, Wuhu. Both are poor areas, particularly Wuhu. However you see luxury condos going up everywhere. Who's going to pay repay the loans for this type of "development?
Closer to home, have a look at the Pazhou area of Guangzhou. Many dozen high rise condos and almost no occupancy.
I see this all over China.
Zhuhai already has over 20 Universities, all claiming to be "branches" of "famous" mainland universities. A visit to Uni-town is abit like going into a ghost town at times - even if it aren't the summer holidays! Call me traditional - but if a Uni-town does not have over 100 bars and clubs, it aren't any good. Just look at BJ's Uni-bars; and the nightly crowds in them.
Ah, finally, something I can totally disagree with from Jake! 60 million visitors aside (yeah, this was a stupid comment), look at the 12th 5-year plan...take a careful look at the Guangdong financial interests behind Hengqin. Review all the hype (and consequent limitations of 15 square km) of Qianhai (the SCMP really doesn't know what it is hyping when it comes to Qianhai).....and when you discover that the tax benefits being set up are definitely advantageous ( and easier to qualify for), then Hengqin really starts looking good. I venture to guess that there will be successful development of Hengqin by 2020......!
'Visitors' = not the same as 'foreign tourists.'

Tiny Macau had nearly 30 million visitors in 2012. Hainan gets even more than that in a year. Hong Kong handled 50 million visitors that year. That is, admittedly, way too much to handle for our infrastructure - but it puts the 20~30 million Hengqin is aiming for in 5 years into a more realistic perspective.

Comparing to foreign tourist arrivals in the UK or France doesn't quite cut it. The overwhelming majority of visitors to all of the above places are domestic vacationers, and this the 1.2bn people pond that Hengqin is fishing in.

Nor is it some random fishing village somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Pearl River Delta. What Mr van der Kamp 'forgot' to mention is that Hengqin 'island' is the large (Hong Kong Island size) blob immediately next to Macau's Cotai Strip, which among other things houses its international airport. Apart from dozen of hotels, Hengqin will become the new home of the ChimeLong International Ocean Resort theme park. This thing will be built on a Disney World (Florida) scale. Disney World alone by the way attracts over 17 million visitors in a year. The State of Florida as a whole nearly 90 million, overwhelming domestic ones.

And if grandpa van der Kamp would like to make historical comparisons - remember that old stalwart of American domestic tourism, Atlantic City? Now considered a case of glory days long gone? It had 27 million visitors in 2012. No magic needed for that.
Could this be an allegory for China?


SCMP.com Account