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

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 3:27am

"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.