SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s coastal Wyong region outside Sydney, a pretty stretch of pristine beaches and wildlife-filled wetlands, isn’t high on the travel agenda of most Chinese tourists.
But the local mayor and a Chinese businessman have big plans to change that - by building a A$500 million ($480 million) theme park that will include a full-size replica of Beijing’s Forbidden City and a nine-storey temple housing a giant Buddha.
“We were the fourth or fifth (local government) council they approached after everybody else laughed in their face,” said Wyong Mayor Doug Eaton, who hopes to have the last laugh with a development projected to attract millions of Chinese tourists.
News of the park has already made headlines in China and the theory is it will attract visitors in a similar way to Americans travelling to EuroDisney - a familiar cultural icon in a new and exotic location. In the United States, there was a proposal last year to build a replica of the Great Wall on a mountain range overlooking Los Angeles, but it never got off the ground.
The Australian park, due to start construction next year, is one of the more unusual attempts by Australia to win a slice of the world’s largest outbound tourism market as it looks for an economic boost to replace its fading mining boom.
As some economists voice concerns that Australia is at risk of falling into its first recession in 22 years, the nation is again turning to its biggest trading partner - this time targeting China’s affluent globetrotters.
Chinese tourists spent $102 billion worldwide last year, according to the UN World Tourism Organization, contributing some A$3.8 billion to the Australian economy. Overall, direct tourism contributes A$41 billion, or 2.8 percent, of Australian gross domestic product and employs half a million people, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
With an eye on the revenue prize, Prime Minister Julia Gillard took a high-level delegation to China in April, announcing an annual trade and tourism fair and agreeing to make the Australia dollar only the third currency to be directly traded against the yuan after the U.S. dollar and the Japanese yen.
Australian travel agents say Chinese visitors are initially sold on the country by images of wide open skies, a rugged outback, unique wildlife and outdoor pursuits. But the reality is they want casinos, not koalas.
“The behaviour is different to the motivation,” said Andrew McEvoy, head of peak tourism body Destination Australia. “They arrive here and find nature in the city and the highlights for them are shopping, dining and gaming or entertainment.”
Liu Jiaxuan, a visitor from northeastern China in her mid-20s, planned to spend most of her 10-day stay in Sydney and Melbourne.
“I am very interested in those small cafes, small galleries, you know, those places with a distinct individuality,” said Liu, strolling near Sydney’s waterfront Opera House.
Shopping was also a must-do on her list despite the strong Australian dollar: “We’ve been to Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong but the duty-free shops here have better prices.”
Businesses are getting on board.
Australia’s second-largest department store, David Jones, last month launched a partnership with UnionPay, China’s dominant payment card supplier.
Global hotel operator Accor, which operates chains including Sofitel, Novotel and Ibis, is putting Chinese dishes on menus, providing Chinese newspapers and TV stations and training staff in cultural differences.
In the lucrative gaming sector, Australia is up against stiff competition. Macau, the world’s largest gambling destination, is adding more than six new casino resorts in the next three years. The Philippines is building ‘Entertainment City’, a complex in Manila that will have four large integrated resorts - also in the next three years.
Crown Ltd and Echo Entertainment Ltd are waging an increasingly acrimonious war to gain a lock in Sydney on gambling tourists from mainland China.
Echo, which holds the sole licence to operate a casino in the harbourside city until 2019, is lobbying for an extension of that exclusivity and an expansion of its Star Casino in an attempt to block Crown’s plans for a high-roller gaming suite.
Crown’s proposed VIP facility is part of a A$1 billion six-star hotel and residential development on Sydney’s waterfront that majority owner, billionaire James Packer, has said will bring “thousands more Chinese tourists to Sydney that otherwise wouldn’t visit”.
Crown and Echo must submit proposals by June 21 and the government will approve only one, meaning either Crown builds a second casino or Echo remains the sole gambling operator.
Industry sources said the government was likely to approve Crown’s Barangaroo development, allowing Packer to add to his expanding Asian gaming empire.
David Green, chief executive of Newpage Consulting in Macau, said two casinos in Sydney could add $1 billion to the local market, taking it to $5 billion in gaming revenue annually and putting it on par with Singapore, the third-largest gambling market in the world.
The privately held Australian Chinese Theme Park Pty Ltd (ACTP), meanwhile, is hoping its development around 90 km (56 miles) northeast of Sydney becomes a major destination alongside the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.
ACTP expects to submit a full development plan for the 15-hectare park within months and begin construction in the second half of next year. The park will be split into seven different cultural sections - including a panda-less “panda paradise”, an educational 4D cinema and a waxworks museum for children.
Entry to the park will be free, with revenue derived from the scores of planned food outlets and other activities.
“It will show our culture in a creative way, this is not a copy,” said ACTP Chairman Bruce Zhong, who bought the block of land from Wyong Council for A$10 million last year.
Financial backers include Shanghai Oriental Pearl International Communication Pty Ltd and Zhong said ACTP may look to list in the future.
Zhong and Eaton anticipate some local tourists but a glittery launch event in Shanghai last month showed Chinese travelers were the target.
“I would love to go, since it is about China,” said Dai Miaohua, an office manager from Shanghai taking in the sights of Sydney’s Circular Quay with his family. “I have always been interested in traditional buildings.”
But not everybody is won over.
“I don’t even like Chinatown,” said the visiting Liu. “Why don’t they build a Disneyland?”
($1 = 1.0426 Australian dollars)
Additional reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong, Maggie Lu-Yueyang in Sydney and Tim Reid in Los Angeles. Editing by Mark Bendeich