Australia has over the years gained a reputation as a prime destination for theme parks, but this now hangs in the balance with newer and more affordable alternatives surfacing elsewhere in Asia-Pacific
The combined thrill power of Dreamworld, Sea World, Movie World and the likes in the Gold Coast was one of the key drawcards for Asian travellers to Australia before the turn of the century. A new generation of theme parks and integrated resorts has since mushroomed across Asia, with Asian agents now reporting mixed views as to whether Australia can retain its status as a reigning theme park destination.
Outbound agents in markets such as Singapore and the Philippines are confident that Australia will remain a top destination for theme park lovers, while elsewhere in Malaysia, Cambodia and Japan, sentiments are strong that new and innovative theme parks in Asia could give their Australian counterparts a run for their money.
It’s wholesome Down Under
“Even with a gradual increase in theme park openings in various parts of Asia, Australia still maintains its charm and is perceived as a classic year-round destination with well-built theme parks,” said Chan Brothers group managing director, Anthony Chan.
Other agents, too, are quick to point out that there’s more to Australia than just theme parks, which, when combined with its unique wildlife, natural sites and adventure offerings, make the country an attractive proposition across a broad spectrum of age groups and demographics.
Dynasty Travel Singapore’s managing director, Clifford Neo, said: “Australia has always been popular as a family playground with great food, and the good exchange rate will make the destination even more affordable for (Singaporean) travellers.”
Karan Anand, head – relationships, Cox & Kings India, agreed: “Australia offers some of the most splendid coastlines and marine tourism that are unique compared to the rest of the world. Australia ranks among the top go-to places for many Indian travellers and is viewed as a composite travel destination with an array of activities.”
Rakshit Desai, managing director, FCM Travel Solutions, India, stated that theme parks constitute just a small part of holiday packages for an “aspirational destination” like Australia. “With theme parks opening in Asia, it is safe to assume that Indians will now shift their attention to the overall experiential quotient that Australia offers instead of (solely on) theme parks,” he added.
Outbound travel behaviour from the Philippines also tell a similar story, with agents such as Marites Pastorfide, assistant general manager of the Philippines’ Wayfair Tours, stating that Filipinos visit Australia “for its totality”.
In China, Nicole Wang, director of resource procurement, CTS MICE Service, said Australia remains one of the most popular outbound destinations with its theme park draws, which are commonly used by incentive groups for training programmes and pre- and post-tour visits. However, she urged the greater use of Chinese signs and information in order to appeal to Chinese theme park goers.
And for markets with no shortage of theme parks on their home grounds, Australia’s uniqueness becomes even more important as a pull factor to justify an overseas theme park experience.
“Parks that feature animals are far more popular because iconic Australian animals – kangaroos, koala bears, crocodiles – are hard to find in Japan,” observed Koichi Suzuki, sales manager for Australia specialist Southern Travelnet.
Tsuneaki Aoyama, CEO of Tokyo-based A’sway, concurred, pointing out that Australian theme parks that “show off sports, the outdoor life and wildlife” best capture the attention of his Japanese clientele.
However, David Yan, MICE general manager at Hua Yuan International Travel China, notes that theme park visits are “not a must” for Chinese travellers to Australia. “While (Australia) remains popular, demand is not as strong as before,” he remarked.
“Theme parks can be part of a tour, but it is usually not a priority or the reason to go to (Australia) unless it is a family vacation or part of a teambuilding group.”
The deadly mishap, which took place at the Gold Coast’s Dreamworld late last year, hence didn’t receive much attention in the local media as it was not a well-known destination for Chinese travellers, added Yan.
As well, most trade players interviewed across Asia-Pacific also stated the Dreamworld accident has not dealt a significant blow to demand, although Hong Kong’s Morning Star Travel Services told TTG Asia that it took the attraction off its itineraries shortly after the accident.
Pastorfide is positive that Australia theme parks’ overall reputation of being well-maintained, professionally run and offering different kinds of attractions remain its strongest suite.
Novelty rides, affordability keep Asia hot
The success of theme parks in Japan is demonstrated by the frequency with which they open or new attractions are added to existing parks.
Universal Studios Japan has announced plans to add an area dedicated to the Super Mario character, while a Nemo attraction will open next year at DisneySea. Legoland Japan is scheduled to open in Nagoya this year, while the Moomin characters will have their own park in Saitama Prefecture by end-2018.
Said Southern Travelnet’s Suzuki: “Interest in Australian theme parks was higher 10 years ago, but the typical reaction we get from Japanese travellers now is that Tokyo Disneyland, DisneySea or Universal Studios Japan are bigger and have better rides.”
This is also a trend that Adam Kamal, CEO of Olympik Holidays, observes of the “mass market of Malaysian theme park goers”. Promising Malaysian destinations such as the Movie Animation Park Studios opening this year in Perak and Sunway Lagoon in Selangor, as well as foreign ones like Shanghai Disneyland, have roused the curiosity of many Malaysians, he added.
The attractiveness of Australia’s theme parks is clearly sliding for mature markets like Hong Kong.
Morning Star Travel Services, general manager, Dannia Cheung, said Hong Kong travellers’ love for novelty have them seeking new theme parks in South-east Asia and undermining traffic to establishments in Australia, which “have been built for a while and are (relatively) outdated”.
Furthermore, more Asian travellers are turning away from Australian parks in favour of more affordable alternatives sprouting up across the region.
Desmond Lee, group managing director at Apple Vacations & Conventions, remarked that Asian theme parks have a broader appeal to Malaysians as entrance fees and overall travel expenses are lower than Australia.
In the Philippines, Lyn Galon, travel consultant, Scorpio Travel and Tours agreed that affordability is now an especially large factor that has affected travel to Australia and other outbound destinations, with the peso at an eight-year low of 50 to the US dollar in November 2016.
Dreamworld was removed from packages at Hong Kong’s Hong Thai Travel Service, with deputy general manager Daniel Chan citing lack of updates to its attractions and pricey admission fees as the main reasons.
Some outbound operators in Thailand have gone as far as to remove theme parks from their itineraries altogether. Suparerk Soonrangura, founder and managing director of NS Travel & Tours, elaborated that the growth of charter flights to Thailand and competition among LCCs caused price wars in outbound tour business in Thailand. Clients were hence looking for cheap tour packages, prompting tour operators to exclude theme parks.
Meanwhile, agents in Cambodia expressed that Australia remains off the map for Cambodian travellers who are instead opting for theme parks nearer home, such as Disneylands in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo.
Seang Volak, owner of Cambodia’s Palm Tours, said: “China is traditionally a more popular destination for theme parks. Cambodia has close ties with the country, there are more frequent and direct flights and it is closer.”
Still, some opine that efforts to refresh theme park attractions may not be enough to guard against the winds of change affecting travel demand.
Somchai Chomraka, managing director of Weekend Tour Thailand noted that while theme parks were popular among Thai travellers in 2006 – especially with the opening of Disneyland parks in Hong Kong and Tokyo – this soon dwindled in 2010 when online games became famous, leading many agents to exclude theme parks from their main programmes.
Even the newly opened Shanghai Disneyland was relegated to an optional part of Weekend Tour’s itineraries with demand already on the decline, according to Somchai.
To him, these are all part of a business cycle. “Theme parks are replaced with water parks which can be found in Thailand’s beach destinations such as Hua Hin, Pattaya, and Phuket. Then again water parks will lose its attractiveness eventually,” he mused.
– Reporting by Paige Lee Pei Qi, S Puvaneswary, Julian Ryall, Rosa Ocampo, Caroline Boey, Prudence Lui, Rohit Kaul and Marissa Carruthers
Can HK keep its amusement?
Shanghai Disneyland attracted four million visitors in just four months since opening in June 2016, but agents in Hong Kong insist that the declining performance of their domestic theme parks are attributed to factors in the broader economic landscape rather than a mere diversion of traffic to Shanghai.
Observing that the new Shanghai attraction has had no impact on Hong Kong Disneyland (HKDL) was Wing Wong, managing director, W Travel Service, who explained that the former mostly targets traffic from northern China while the latter caters more to south and south-west China as well as South-east Asia.
Wong added: “Both parks have different styles – the Shanghai one clings to Chinese culture while HKDL has a more international style.”
Still, theme parks in Hong Kong have found themselves in the weeds, with industry players pointing to the global economic uncertainty and a plunge in mainland Chinese arrivals, a trend that preceded the opening of Shanghai Disneyland.
HKDL laid off nearly 100 staff in April 2016 and recorded a net loss of HK$148 million (US$19.1 million) for the fiscal year ending early October 2015, with vice president, sales and distribution marketing, Terruce Wang stressing that the park’s 2016 performance was “aligned with Hong Kong’s overall arrival numbers”.
Wang continued: “We observed some positive trends in our international markets over the past few months and attribute this to our efforts in South-east Asian markets and the launch of a strong franchise in our park, Star Wars: Tomorrowland Takeover. This proved to be popular not just with our traditional family segment, but also male and young adult guests.”
He added that the park would continue to ride on the excitement and leverage popular Disney franchises, such as through the launch of the Iron Man Experience last month and the opening of 750-room Disney Explorers Lodge in 2Q2017.
Further ahead, a multi-year development plan spanning 2018 to 2023 (subject to funding approval) may result in the addition of Frozen and other Marvel Super Heroes attractions.
Also moving forward with new plans is Ocean Park, whose 2015/16 annual report showed a 18.8 per cent drop in visitors to six million.
Executive director of sales & marketing, Vivian Lee said starting January 2017, admission fees were increased to HK$438 for adults and HK$219 for children/seniors. In addition to the two hotels under construction, the new all-weather Ocean Park Water World will extend opening hours to offer night attractions. – Prudence Lui
This article was first published in TTG Asia February 2017 issue. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.