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Monks seek discount on land fees to develop site

Monastery hopes to save millions on expansion plan designed to lure tourists from Disneyland

Buddhist monks at the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island have been bargaining with the government in the hope of obtaining a 50 per cent discount on charges required for the development rights to a piece of land inside the monastery.

They are planning to build a multimillion-dollar exhibition hall as part of their campaign to attract more tourists.

The monks concede that their landmark construction - the Big Buddha, which was opened in 1993 and sits atop a misty plateau at Ngong Ping, where the monastery is located - has started losing tourists to Mickey Mouse and his friends after the Disneyland theme park opened last September.

Sik Chi Wai, the monastery supervisor, would not discuss the exact amount of premium for the 10,000 sq ft piece of land, saying only that it could be more than $30 million.

The $200 million project will see the demolition of part of the existing main hall - Tai Hung Temple.

A new extension will be added to house an exhibition hall and a library of Buddhist scripts, according to the monastery's plans. The total floor area of the new extension will be about 70,000 sq ft.

The monastery is raising money for the project and hopes to start construction late this year. It will take about three years to complete.

Sik Chi Wai said: 'Many people have already visited Po Lin Monastery. Now we are planning a new building and part of it will be used as an exhibition centre. We hope it will give our place a new look to attract more tourists.'

He said the monastery was a non-profit-making organisation and hoped the government could give them preferential treatment on the land premium charges.

The monastery, built in the 1920s, is a sprawling complex of temples and pavilions that attracts local pilgrims and tourists from around the world. It saw a boom in visitors with the opening of the Big Buddha, which is reputedly the world's largest outside, seated, bronze Buddha statue.

But Sik Chi Wai conceded the number of visitors had fallen by almost 40 per cent since the opening of Disneyland last year.

Visitors to the monastery or Big Buddha do not need to pay admission but many buy vegetarian meals there.

Sik Chi Wai said the monastery might consider charging visitors $10 each for admission.

'I do not want to give others the impression that our monastery is eager to make money,' he said. 'But the reality is that we need money to maintain the operation. We have some 200 staff.'

Secretary for Economic Development and Labour Stephen Ip Shu-kwan yesterday would not say whether the government would agree to cut land premium charges.

'Negotiation is under way,' he said. 'There is no big difference. We are still discussing the conditions of land use and other details.'