Hong Kong’s Ocean Park is going through a more challenging time now because of the months-long civil unrest than the period when Sars broke out in 2003, its outgoing chief executive said, as he predicted a “slower” tourism rebound.
Matthias Li Sing-chung, 65, the park’s CEO, said the outbreak of the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic was one of the biggest challenges during his 25 years at the popular tourist attraction, as “no one would have visited even if free tickets were offered”.
Li said during the Sars outbreak, the park was forced to shut its gates and cut its workers’ salaries for one day every week.
“[But] if I compare the ongoing social unrest with the 2003 outbreak, I find the time now to be more challenging,” he said in an interview ahead of his retirement. “Sars lingered for about three to four months. But the present unrest is lasting longer.”
Anti-government protests have escalated into violent clashes between radicals and police since June, with more than 40 jurisdictions across the globe issuing warnings or alerts for travellers heading to the city.
Hong Kong’s tourism has been hit hard by the unrest. In October, tourist arrivals were down 43.7 per cent year on year to 3.31 million – the worst since May 2003.
The park, which drew between 5.8 million and 7.6 million visitors annually over the past five years, saw tour group visitors fall about 56 per cent and individual visitors from mainland China and overseas fall more than 60 per cent between July and October, compared with the same period last year.
Li said the park’s management was striving to cut expenditure by delaying non-critical projects.
But he said he could at least boost the local market even during protests in the city, while there was nothing he could do in 2003.
Local visitors make up between 30 and 40 per cent of the park’s customer mix, the rest being mainland Chinese and overseas travellers.
He felt a rebound would need more time. “There is a chance that tourism recovery goes slower than the period after Sars,” he said.
Since 2003, an influx of mainland tourists has helped boost Hong Kong’s tourism sector quickly because of the introduction of an individual visit scheme by mainland authorities. Now, the scheme covers 49 cities.
To lure more visitors, the park planned to launch six projects by 2021.
A new ride is set to be introduced before Christmas, while a new light show, called “Gala of Lights”, will kick off in January.
The long-awaited HK$2.9 billion water park, known as Tai Shue Wan Water World, and a new attraction themed as “meerkat and giant tortoise” are also expected to open next year.
Also, a “STEAM hub” to promote science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics among children and the Fullerton Hotel should be ready by 2021.
Li, who joined the park as a finance director in 1994, will retire in July. He said after his retirement, he would like to work on something meaningful and enjoyable, such as conservation.
He hoped to see the water park open before his retirement. But he said he would have to leave with an unfulfilled wish: to see a panda being born in Hong Kong during his term.
“Among Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, our city is the first place where mainland authorities sent pandas. But, the ones in Taiwan and Macau have already given birth [while pandas in Hong Kong are yet to do so],” he said.
The pandas Ying Ying and Le Le, both 14 years old, were gifted by the central government in 2007 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the city’s handover to China. Their first mating season was in 2011, when they were five years old.
Despite an extensive breeding programme set up for the pair, they are yet to have a baby. Ying Ying suffered a miscarriage in 2015, and subsequently had false pregnancies.
“My only personal regret is not having a Hong Kong-born baby panda here,” he said.