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Hong Kong, 10 Years On (4)- Full of life

04-02-2011 23:33 BJT



November 2006 was the busiest month ever for Hong Kong's Ocean Park. For the whole year, attendance was at a record high of 4.4 million visitors.

At the same time, work was beginning on an expansion project for the park.

"The past 30 years have been very successful and we are looking forward to even greater success in the next 30 years," said Henry Tang Ying-yen, Financial Secretary of HKSAR Government.

"We set an attendance record of 4.4 million visitors for the year. If we continue to improve our service for tourists we can break that record," said Dr. Allen Zeman, Chairman of Ocean Park Corporation.

Ocean Park is set like a pearl in the southern tip of Hong Kong Island. It is the largest marine park in Asia. Opened in 1977, over the years its fortunes have ebbed and flowed along with those of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong people have taken the park into their hearts, so much so that it is sometimes called the “People's Park". Over the past 30 years, countless Hong Kong children have experienced wonder and joy there that will live forever in their memories.

The 1990s saw Ocean Park reach the height of its success. The people who flocked to it from the Chinese mainland and Southeast Asia considered the visit the highpoint of their stay in Hong Kong. In the year when Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, Ocean Park received more visitors than ever before. Subsequently, however, the Park gradually lost its appeal, affected by the decline in its wildlife numbers, the aging of its facilities, and Hong Kong's poor economic climate. By 2004, Ocean Park was near to shutting down permanently.

But then the Hong Kong government signed a partnership agreement with Disney. A Hong Kong Disneyland would, it was hoped, revitalize the Hong Kong tourist industry and raise Hong Kong's international profile.

Hong Kong Disneyland is the second Disneyland in Asia – the other being in Japan – and the fifth in the world. Disney executives have said they see Hong Kong as the gateway to China, and its almost limitless source of customers. There are 300 million children in China aged 14 or younger, more than the total population of the United States. For the people at Disney, this is a very exciting demographic.

"Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and in 1999 we signed an agreement to build a Disneyland in Hong Kong. So you can say that we're very optimistic and have a lot of confidence in Hong Kong's future," said Bill Ernest, Managing Director of Hong Kong Disneyland.

Even before the powerful challenge from Hong Kong Disneyland emerged, there were widespread doubts about the future of Ocean Park.

"There were a lot of different opinions. Some people said, 'This land is very valuable. We should sell it to build housing or a commercial district.' Others said, 'That's no good. We should keep Ocean Park, ' " said Dr. Allen Zeman.

Dr. Allen Zeman is a Jew who has lived in Hong Kong for 37 years. In 2004, at a critical time for Ocean Park, he accepted an invitation from the Hong Kong government to become the Park's chairman. Although he is a Westerner to look at, Dr. Zeman thinks of himself as a true Hong Konger and as half Chinese. As a long-term resident of Hong Kong, Dr. Zeman has fond memories of Ocean Park in its heyday. He was determined to restore it to its former glory, and drawing on his outstanding talent for business and creative imagination, he drew up plans to make Ocean Park one of the world's foremost marine parks.

The delightful creatures symbolize Ocean Park's vitality. For the past 30 years, they have lived through the same ups and downs as has the park itself. Every year they give 45,000 children a valuable lesson in how to live in harmony with Nature.

The dolphin lagoon is also called the dolphin school. Here, the first dolphin in the world conceived by artificial insemination was born.

The dolphin show is one of the Park's most popular attractions. Dolphins are naturally intelligent, and they respond promptly to all their trainers' hand signals to perform an amazing array of tricks.

The aquarium at Ocean Park teems with colourful life. It contains 2,000 fish belonging to some 250 species. It is home to 22 huge Napoleon Wrasse, one of the world's largest reef fish, more than any other aquarium in the world. The major difference between Ocean Park and the cartoon characters at Disneyland is that in Ocean Park people living in a large metropolitan city can, just a short distance away, meet and become acquainted with these living creatures.

"At Ocean Park, the animals do not perform according to what people ask. There's no way for people to control these animals.

Every time you come here, they'll do something you've never seen them do before. For example, I often like to go and look at the pandas. Sometimes they're sleeping, sometimes they're eating bamboo, and sometimes they're wandering about. The dolphins swim all around their lagoon. All of this is very interesting. So now I know that what makes Ocean Park stand out, is its animals," said Dr. Allen Zeman.

If the park's layout is compared to a maze, at the heart of it is the shark aquarium. It contains 30 kinds of fish – not only sharks, but also tropical fish and stonefish. They are free to swim around as they please, so that life is not unlike what it would be for them in the open sea.

For just 25 Hong Kong dollars, park visitors can buy a bucket of fish and feed the sea lions. This is often the highlight of the day for the younger visitors.

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