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Chinese Theme Parks Need High-tech Experiences

      China is a major consumer of tourism, but not a major tourism producer. Trade deficit in tourism has experienced notable uptick in the last 3 years. According to data of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the deficit rose 48% from 2012 to 76.9 billion USD in 2013. To reverse the outward flow of Chinese tourists, major tourism companies have been actively experimenting with resorts and theme parks, ditching the traditional model of “seeing temples in the day and sleeping at night”, to bring colorful and rich experiences such as rural life, mountain climbing, expeditions, vacation and recreation.
Creating Tourism Dividends through Innovation
      As an emerging form of tourism that is more focused on tourist involvement and experience, experience-oriented tourism is rising in China. In February this year alone, cities including Shanghai, Tianjin, Jinan and Urumchi announced to build theme parks, while international organizations such as the Japanese Universal Studios and American Dreamworks are also considering sites for new theme parks. According to AECOM research, 14 theme parks opened in China between 2012 and 2013, and the figure is expected to increase to 59 theme parks and 5 water parks by 2020. Costing approximately 23.8 billion USD, these parks are expected to attract 166.3 million potential tourists. At the 1st Global Times Tourism Forum, vice chairperson of the 11th CPPCC said that when it comes to operations, the Disneyland owns an animation industry that further expands to multiple industries. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are both derivatives. As an industry platform, experience-oriented tourism can branch out an industry chain that can result in myriad profit points and new projects.
      The domestic tourism industry is still at a rather low level. Executive Dean of the Institute of Cultural and Creative Research of Central University of Finance and Economics, Wei Pengju noted at the recently held 1st Global Times Tourism Forum sponsored by the Global Times news agency, we are basically reaping the profits generated by monopolizing resources, “making money by building fence around the historic sites, God-created landscapes and the cultural relics left behind by our ancestors”. In his opinion, such an approach is not only inappropriate, but also illegal, for they are the cultural heritages shared commonly by a people, a country or the entire human race. “Moreover, we are basically relying on the demographic dividend, in which the sheer size of the population and the blind tidal way of tourism bring us the benefits.” Such a way must be changed. We shall create benefits in this industry through innovation, and experience-oriented tourism offers a new platform for such innovation.
      Two exemplary projects in China at the moment are the Overseas Chinese Town in Shenzhen and Dinosaur Park in Changzhou. The Romandisea Seven Star International Cultural Tourism Resort that broke ground in Daying, Sichuan on May 30th is one of such projects. The world’s first full-size Titanic remake- the “Unsinkable Titanic” in its first phase will feature ballrooms built totally identical with the original, and a venue to experience the collision with iceberg. Other projects such as the world’s largest manmade sky and world’s first high-tech interactive theatre are also included in the phase.
Theme Parks in China Not Doing Well
      The majority of fun parks in China are not doing very well however. According to estimation by industry insiders, by year 2009, some 70% of the theme parks were losing money, leaving merely the remaining 10% profitable. Theme parks offering experience tourism in China are lagging far behind their foreign counterparts at the moment. Firstly, technically creative companies are still a weak spot in China. In addition, the theme parks in China mostly face a number of problems such as overcharged tickets, shabby content designs, identical services and underperforming staff.
      According to Su Shaojun, chairperson of Seven Star Energy Investment Group, currently the theme parks in China are still lacking sophisticated technological contents and most of them are actually amusement parks consisting mainly of roller coasters and bumper cars, or scenic attractions. While many of Disneyland’s projects can be replicated, they have established their brand recognition. Instead of copying others, we should build our own brands and be conscious of brand nonreproducibility. Su Shaojun believes high tech and culture shall be combined in tourism. First, we should rely on high-tech experiences to lure tourists. The world’s largest manmade sky to be created by the company for instance can show tourists blue sky and white clouds around the clock. Second, cultural contents are essential. As a widely recognized ship worldwide, the Titanic sent off a culture of universal love and responsibility as it sank, and is therefore a potential project for cultural tourism that can accommodate the history.
      A good experience-oriented tourism project lies at its nonreproducibility, technological contents and international strategic planning. As far as the Deputy Secretary General of Asian Pacific Area Tour Union, Ye Hao is concerned, the domestic theme parks are not inferior to foreign ones in terms of hardware, but lag behind in creativity, especially in utilizing creative ideas in small designs. “The domestic parks are amusing, but not very amusing; have a theme, but not enough; and provide service, but not proper,” said Ye Hao who added that to do experience-oriented tourism, we must firstly develop brands and cultural symbols to the ultimate; and secondly, the technologies must be centered on people, especially on the quality of service.
External Cultures May Be Used as References
      We may not necessarily exploit only local cultural resources to develop tourism. We may leverage external cultural resources, or even create cultural resources. America is a country comparatively scarce in history and culture, but claims a world leading creative tourism industry. Gao Jianling, President of GC High-tech Asia stressed that though America lacks culture, it leads in tourism, that “all cultural tourism projects in America and all other items based on culture, except the dinosaurs and spaces that are created from nowhere, are ‘pirated’ from other countries, be it the Titanic or the Pirates of the Caribbean.”
      According to Ye Hao, the Romandisea Seven Star International Cultural Tourism Resort is different in that it uses an exotic thing—the Titanic as the theme, saying that, “there is market prospect to materialize a foreign item into a real experience and product.” In Wei Pengju’s view, this project is already an international one, for the Titanic represents strong draw and influences. The Titanic is the second most grossing movie in the world and grossed 360 million RMB in box office incomes when it was put on the big screens in China in 1998, a record only to be broken in 2009. We can achieve an excellent experience economy by replicating a Titanic in China in a high-tech way, and that is the direction that the Chinese tourism industry shall upgrade towards.
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