$5.4b - or Ocean Park will fold

Top News | Sophie Hui 12 May 2020

Ocean Park is in urgent need of HK$5.4 billion if it is to escape being shut.

For right now it has only enough money to last until next month, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah revealed yesterday in bidding to deliver help.

Funding will next be discussed at the Legislative Council's Finance Committee on Friday after officials scrapped a plan to inject HK$10.6 billion into the park for its long-term repositioning. Now the focus is on saving it from the immediate crisis.

Of the HK$5.4 billion needed, HK$3 billion would be used to help the park repay commercial loans.

The rest could keep the park, which has had no income since its closure on January 26 as the Covid-19 pandemic bit, afloat for 12 months.

Failing that some 2,000 jobs would be lost, Yau warned. He also noted this was the first time the park had asked for government funding since it opened in 1977.

But the park wants another HK$13.2 million of funding to carry out a study on reshaping itself in the longer term.

Operated by the Ocean Park Corp, the not-for-profit organization occupies 91.5 hectares on Hong Kong Island's south side. It is a mix of marine mammal park, oceanarium, animal theme park and amusement park.

But in 2019 its mainstay mainland visitors fell and led to a reduced attendance of 5.7 million for the year.

Speaking at the Central Government Office in Tamar, Yau said the park now faces "unprecedented" challenges.

"Without the funding it will face only one outcome, which is closing down," he warned.

The funding, he went on, would "save Ocean Park from going bust, from being liquidated, and save the park so we can continue to serve the Hong Kong community."

A plan submitted to the legislature in January was no longer practicable, Yau said.

"One thing that has changed the whole scenario is the epidemic," Yau said, adding that global tourism outlooks would undergo major changes after the pandemic.

Yau said that the "contingency money" could keep the park running "while we are sorting out the future.

"So there will be at a later stage another plan to take the park forward."

Asked if the park has to change its management, Yau said the government will participate more in its management in the future and will consider if it has to alter the legal limitations.

On the immediate crisis, park chairman Leo Kung Lin-cheng said it would run out of cash by next month.

Even with it temporarily closed, he added, it still needs money for its operations including taking care of animals and maintenance, which costs HK$140 million a month.

Deputy chairman Lau Ming-wai said he is confident the new Water World feature, to be completed this year, would change the outlook.

Even so it will be "a very difficult year," Lau said. The park will need to cut back on expenditure but does not want any lay-offs.

The park has been in the red for four consecutive years, recording a four-year-high deficit of HK$557.3 million in the 2018-19 financial year - double the deficit from the previous year.

And people are unhappy with the park seeking government funding and were going online yesterday to question its long-term prospects.

Some said they would like the park to close and for the Wong Chuk Hang site used for public housing. Others want a management reorganization.

Legislator Claudia Mo Man-ching of HK First criticized the "blackmailing" tactic of seeking funding immediately or seeing the park going broke.

She said the park's deficit has been increasing for a few years, and that was obviously a management problem. But no one has had to stand down.

Tourism sector legislator Yiu Si-wing said he would support funding as Ocean Park can contribute much to the SAR economy, and he believed the situation will improve after the new Water World opens.

But the park still has to increase revenue and cut expenditure, Yiu said.

The park management said last week it was "carefully evaluating its operation resumption schedule" in view of the pandemic situation, and even with a reopening it would face virus-linked challenges including its capacity likely reduced by more than half.

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