Hong Kong Disneyland lures Chinese as it marks third birthday
The theme park has struggled to attract enough visitors since it opened to great fanfare in 2005. -AFP
HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong Disneyland will celebrate its birthday on Friday after three difficult years, as its new managing director juggles a grab for Chinese visitors with a battle over how to fund expansion.
The theme park has struggled to attract enough visitors since it opened to great fanfare in 2005, and has faced criticism it failed to understand both the local and mainland China markets.
But a shift to more Chinese-friendly marketing earlier this year was reinforced by the appointment of managing director Andrew Kam, whose career has been spent selling another US icon, Coca-Cola, to China.
"I have yet to go into the details of the plan we will set for next year, but it will be fairly aggressive in terms of (visitor) growth," Kam told a small group of reporters this week just two days after starting his job.
"We are going to invest more resources in developing these markets ... China is probably the single largest market outside Hong Kong for us -- we are looking for expansion there," he added.
Kam said Disneyland would be employing more staff to market the park on the mainland and build better relationships with travel agents.
He is also hoping the Chinese and Hong Kong governments will agree a special visa scheme for visitors from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.
But cooperation with the local government, which owns 57 percent of the park, has been strained.
Legislators have criticised the three-billion-US-dollar park for being a bad deal for taxpayers who paid the vast majority of the start-up costs.
And they have balked at further investment when more pressing concerns, such as inflation, are vexing residents.
"Disney has a huge credibility gap in this ... They got too good an original deal," said John Ap, an expert on tourism at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University.
"When things go wrong, it has come back to haunt them," he told AFP.
Kam insists new attractions are necessary, but there is no sign 18 months of funding negotiations will end soon.
"(Both shareholders) have an interest in making this park work and expansion is part of the strategy that will make this park work for Hong Kong," he said.
But the prospect of any new funding is not helped by a string of controversies over the first three years.
A long-running feud with staff unions over working conditions, several food poisoning scares and a mix-up that provoked a near-riot with customers clambering over spiked fences after paying for tickets, forced the park to reshuffle its management team within just a few months of opening.
But the biggest question mark remains attendance figures.
The management has repeatedly refused to confirm figures despite the huge public investment, but a recent newspaper report said visitor numbers were expected to hit 5.6 million in the third year.
This is still well below prior expectations, but would be a jump on the previous year's figure that government documents put at more than four million.
Kam said he did not recognise the latest figure and a spokeswoman would only say there had been "steady" growth.
However, criticism has been muted in recent months, as the management has brought a much-needed focus on attracting Chinese visitors.
It produced a beefed-up Lunar New Year programme -- which it dubbed "The Year of the Mouse" rather than the traditional rat, and launched new advertising campaigns and a Chinese movie "The Secret of the Magic Gourd."
But Kam said the park would remain true to its American roots, while expanding its appeal to Hong Kong and Chinese visitors.
"This is a very American icon ... I won't say we are trying to make this park more Chinese, in fact some of the core values of Disney we actually need to preserve," he said.
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