China gambles on theme park, whale sharks to lure punters from Macau casinos

China gambles on theme park, whale sharks to lure punters from Macau casinos

HENGQIN ISLAND, China - It's being touted as China's answer to Orlando, a $5 billion resort and theme park complete with a mega rollercoaster and a whale shark tank situated on a sleepy southern island next to the world's biggest gambling hub Macau.

Chimelong, which is set to partially open next month, is the linchpin of China's ambitious plans to expand Hengqin into a leisure hub similar to the coastal US city globally renowned for its natural attactions and theme-park resorts by Walt Disney Co and Universal Studios.

And while some extravagant infrastructure projects in China have turned into white elephants, the odds are on Hengqin's side largely due to the support of the Beijing government and the island's proximity to the millions of tourists who throng to Macau every year.

"I don't have many doubts that it will be successful," said Philip Tulk, director of equities research at Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong, referring to the island which the government designated as a special economic zone five years ago.

"The mainland people are looking for entertainment and travel options that are reasonably easy. They strongly desire new and interesting places to go and if Chimelong can deliver on that it will be massively successful," he added.

The construction boom on Hengqin, just a 10-minute drive from Macau, comes at a time when mega-resorts are being developed in Asia in places like Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam to tap the region's growing ranks of wealthy tourists.

Most of these visitors are Chinese and many choose to stay close to home, heading to Macau, the only place in China where casino gambling is legal and where gaming revenues grew by more than a fifth last month to just over $3.5 billion.

Macau welcomed almost 30 million visitors last year, but the government's plans to increase that number are being stymied by a lack of land and strained infrastructure and services.

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