Greater Bay Area: Advantage Zhuhai

30 Jun 2019 by Michael Allen
Zhuhai cityscape

With its diverse industries, leisure resorts, compact size and strategic location near Hong Kong and Macau, this coastal mainland city boasts plenty of drawcards

On the 42nd floor of the 330-metre-high Zhuhai Tower, in the reception of the opulent St Regis Zhuhai hotel, an enormous mural occupies an entire wall opposite the reception desks. The mural depicts part of Zhuhai in the early 1900s, showing a beautiful village at the bottom of a verdant hillside. Rong Hong, the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university (Yale), is strolling away from the town and towards the viewer of the painting. Not far behind him, two children can be seen playing. Behind the town, the ocean is filled with sailboats.

This, one of the hotel staff tells me, is what the area surrounding Zhuhai Tower used to look like, but now it’s unrecognisable when compared with the painting. All traces of the village seem to have disappeared, and the area is now being developed by state-owned enterprise Zhuhai Huafa Group. There are three major hotels (including the St Regis) in the vicinity, as well as a huge convention and exhibition centre.

“When I was little, Zhuhai was just a very small city, very few people were here, and I could not see a lot of high buildings. It was just like the countryside, but now it’s quite different, especially in this area,” says Angel Huang, marketing officer at the Zhuhai International Convention & Exhibition Center.

The centre’s largest and most prestigious function room, the 4,500 sqm and 12.6-metre-high Zhuhai Hall, tends to be rented for provincial government functions. Even some large multinationals have balked at the expense of renting out this expansive area, PR officer Lehong Chen tells me during a tour.

The centre occupies a footprint of 269,000 sqm and a gross floor area of around 970,000 sqm (split into two phases). It has recently hosted events including The 3rd China-Israel Investment Summit, Walmart’s New Year Celebration Meeting and a FAW-Volkswagen New Sagitar Press Conference.

Zhuhai is now a city of around 1.6 million people, which may seem large to some but is relatively small by Chinese standards. By comparison, Beijing and Shanghai are home to well over 20 million people each. However, Zhuhai is likely to rise in prominence both in China and internationally in the coming years, due to its integral positioning in the Chinese government’s Greater Bay Area (GBA) initiative. The city also has a unique advantage over the other cities in the GBA: the 55-kilometre Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, opened in October 2018, makes Zhuhai the only mainland Chinese city linked directly to both Macau and Hong Kong by land.

Major industries in Zhuhai include digital information, biomedicine, home appliances, electric energy, petrochemicals, precision machinery and travel, says Harley Seyedin, president of The American Chamber of Commerce in South China. “We can observe from this unique blend that the city is ready to become the dark horse of the Greater Bay Area,” he says.

“Zhuhai is one of those areas that’s been underutilised – understated. It’s not really been known what its direction would be. They’ve dabbled in every kind of industry you could imagine, but it’s not been the immediate sought-after focal point for any particular industry. The GBA will change that.”

Hengqin Island skyline / Credit: CGTN.com

The Orlando of China

A major contributor to Zhuhai’s success is likely to be Hengqin, an island to its south that is about three times the size of Macau. Little known outside of China, much of the island now resembles a giant construction site, but its strategic location right next to Macau means it can take advantage of Macau’s lack of spare land by building attractions to lure non-gaming tourists over the border.

Billy Chan, director, international affairs office at Macau University of Science and Technology’s faculty of medicine lives in Macau and often observes Hengqin Island when he takes coffee on his balcony each morning. He believes Hengqin has potential, but is definitely still in its early stages of development.

“They have a lot of bricks and mortar and glass and steel, and buildings standing up and half-finished,” he says. “Hengqin is a great spot, it’s really close to Zhuhai. I’m sure the government will give lots of incentives [for development], but I don’t see a lot of activity yet – besides a lot of buildings. It’s like the lights are on but nobody’s home.”

Given time, though, Hengqin Island is likely to grow into a major entertainment centre for southern China. Already, those involved or observing its development are dubbing it “the Orlando of China”.

“They have lots of empty space, very good traffic infrastructure with the [Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau] bridge, they have a high-speed train and their own airport, which can be developed. Basically, there’s a lot of infrastructure and a lot of land,” says Dr Markus Schuckert, an assistant professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Chimelong Hengqin Bay Hotel

In a May 2019 visit to the Chimelong Hengqin Bay Hotel, Business Traveller Asia-Pacific toured the expansive 1,000-plus room property. Eight towering dolphin statues encircle a luminescent red anemone statue in the lobby. At the rear of the property, in front of the expansive swimming pool, is a smaller pool housing real-life dolphins for guests to observe. Even on the overcast day on which we visited, plenty of guests were poolside, with children floating in the pool on inflatable swans and flamingoes. A vast, then-empty car park opposite the hotel was expected to be filled with the shiny new automobiles of the Chinese middle classes come summer.

The property is just one of the hotels in the Chimelong International Ocean Tourist Resort, owned by Chimelong Group, a Chinese theme-park operator active in southern China since 1989. (The company also has a major tourist resort in Guangzhou.)

Guests at the resort on Hengqin can also choose to stay at the themed Chimelong Circus Hotel or Chimelong Penguin Hotel. (A fourth hotel is also under construction.) From these, hotel guests have easy access to the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom theme park, which features rides, a 5D theatre and animal exhibitions.

“Actually, Ocean Kingdom is one of the best parks in China because they imported a lot of know-how from Hong Kong and Macau. It’s really one of the first homegrown parks which really levers on an international scale,” says Dr Schuckert. “The guys who are running Chimelong [Ocean Kingdom] are partially from Disney and partially from Ocean Park [a theme park in Hong Kong], so they are coming with a solid know-how in the business.”

But for those familiar with Macau, there’s one thing conspicuously missing from these hotels: there are no casinos or gambling of any kind to be found. Casinos remain prohibited in the mainland – though of course, should mum and dad fancy a flutter, Macau is just a short drive away, and customs and immigration operate 24/7, meaning you could viably slip out to play a few hands of midnight baccarat in The Venetian (or other casino hotel of your choice) and get back to your hotel in Hengqin before the kids even realise you’re gone.

Novotown / Credit: Lai Fung Group

Another major tourism development in Hengqin is Novotown. At the time of writing, Novotown, which is being developed by Hong Kong company Lai Sun Group, is still very much a building site and feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. But later this year, the 260,000 sqm site is set to be transformed into a multipurpose entertainment and meetings space.

Features will include Lionsgate Entertainment World, which will be Asia’s first movie-themed indoor experience centre and aims to bring to life some of the most successful Lionsgate productions, including The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga, The Divergent Series, Now You See Me, Gods of Egypt and Escape Plan.

Then there’s the National Geographic Ultimate Explorer, which will be an “edutainment centre” that “combines and presents wonders from science, exploration and adventures using state-of-the-art technology”. Visitors will be able to stay at the 494-room Hengqin Hyatt Regency Hotel, and there’s also an event venue called Hall of Inspiration that can hold up to 1,500 people.

With Chimelong Ocean Kingdom just down the road, some may feel the theme-park market here will become too saturated, but the government and developers are betting that the parks will complement rather than cannibalise each other. “They try to have a cluster of theme parks over there, including what they have in Hong Kong [Disneyland and Ocean Park]. As you can see from Orlando, the theme parks do not necessarily cannibalise each other, they subsidise and support each other,” says Dr Schuckert.

“If you have more theme parks people stay longer. People swap from theme park to theme park and increase travelling there because there are a lot of new attractions. The advantage of Zhuhai is that shopping, gaming and entertainment are very close to each other. It’s all within one hour’s drive: you can go from ‘Orlando’ [Zhuhai] to ‘Las Vegas’ [Macau], and for shopping Hong Kong is like New York or San Francisco. Basically, in one hour you can jump between one, two, three cities.”

All this development in Zhuhai is indeed very promising, but it needs to be put into perspective. China is a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, with a wide range of economically important cities. In the Greater Bay Area alone, Zhuhai is already dwarfed by economic powerhouses like Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Still, Zhuhai’s unique charm as a coastal, green city could be its standout characteristic.

“Zhuhai is quite small. It cannot compete with Shenzhen or Guangzhou,” says Huang from the Zhuhai International Convention & Exhibition Center. “It’s still a small city, but our feature is we have wonderful beaches, we can see the ocean and we can go to Hong Kong and Macau very conveniently, so this is our advantage.”

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