Notebook

November 24, 2011 11:35 pm

The theme park tiger economy

Apart from the breakfast of barbecued chicken’s feet, it could have been Disney World.

It was mealtime at Chimelong, the vast pleasure park in southern China where I had taken my tween-aged children for half term, and no one was bothering about the buffet. Every head in the 1,000-seat breakfast room was turned toward the majestic trio of live white tigers pacing the glassed-in courtyard at the centre of the restaurant.

The middle class enjoys itself in similar ways around the world, but this was a “weekend break” with Chinese characteristics. Apart from the tigers at breakfast, there were also tigers at check-in: a family of entirely white “snow tigers” that lives just outside the hotel lobby. I have been to a lot of zoos in my time, and tigers without stripes were a first for me; but I was reliably assured by the staff that, though the Chimelong management would stop at nothing for my enjoyment, the tigers had not been bleached. I was told they were born that way.

Birth planning, whether for animals or people, was everywhere in evidence at Chimelong: nearly every breakfast table had precisely two parents and one child, and “family tickets” included only one offspring. Grandparents were feeding toddlers here and there: but the squabbling siblings and double strollers common at family resorts in the west were nowhere to be seen.

As China’s small families climb the income ladder, they increasingly like to travel: on their own, not in groups with funny flags and T-shirts, and outside traditional holidays such as lunar New Year and Chinese national day. The Chinese still seek safety in numbers when travelling abroad: but at home, they now want to do their own thing.

One reason is a quantum leap in mobility. In 2007, before the global financial crisis, the Chinese bought less than 6m passenger cars; this year, they will buy more than twice as many. And apart from more smog and traffic jams, that will inevitably mean more weekend breaks.

Banx cartoon

According to a recent Boston Consulting Group report, every year for the next decade, 25m Chinese will take their first ever leisure trip. Given the pitiful state of much of China’s tourism industry – where hotel wildlife is more often of the insect variety – western hotel and leisure brands see a big opportunity.

Theme park owners have already done their bit for Chinese tourism by establishing 2,500 parks at a total cost of Rmb300bn, at last count in 2010. Chimelong is one of the largest: though public relations staff say the resort’s area is a secret – even the price of rooms is kept mum until a few weeks before occupancy – it includes a safari park, amusement park, water park, crocodile park and world-class circus.

Walt Disney is building a Rmb24.5bn theme park in Shanghai, and Sanrio will have a Hello Kitty park in eastern China. There is already a park for virtual gamers, Joyland, based on World of Warcraft, and even one dedicated to dwarfs.

Tourist convenience

So China already has a plethora of theme parks; but the same cannot be said of another tourist essential, the clean toilet. The past few years have revolutionised Chinese toileting, with many entertainment facilities upgrading their conveniences; last year’s Shanghai World Expo boasted it had China’s first stink-free toilets.

Old habits die hard, however, and authorities on the Shanghai metro regularly had to reprimand Expo visitors for holding bare-bottomed toddlers over the tracks to do their business. And though Chimelong’s toilets were immaculate, one mother was still seen aiming a stream of infant urine toward the bushes around the snow tiger’s courtyard.

Beijing announced this week that it would introduce a GPS system to help residents locate public toilets through their mobile phones. But official media ridiculed the idea, suggesting that local government should first build more toilets, before worrying about how to find them.

A Chinese twist

For foreigners, western-style sit-down toilets are always at a premium over Asian squat-loos. But they may not always be obviously signposted. One spotted in Shanghai recently bore the title: “deformed man end place” – since western toilets are intended for the disabled in China.

China’s tourist revolution may carry lots of western brand names. But from stripeless tigers to English malapropisms, its charm lies in its enduring Chinese characteristics.

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