Hong Kong Disneyland may have had its feathers ruffled by the grand opening of its Shanghaicounterpart in June, but the aggressive expansion of Wanda City projects on the Chinesemainland is likely to spell a new hurdle for the long-established theme park in retaining visitorsand recording a decent financial statement.
Real estate conglomerate Wanda Group in September unveiled its second Wanda City projectin Hefei, Anhui province, as part of an ambitious plan to build 15 theme parks across thecountry by 2020. The first opened in May at Nanchang in southeastern Jiangxi province.
Meanwhile, Beijing will open the world's largest Universal Studios in 2020, while Hong Kong-listed Shimao Group has also entered the fray by promising to build eight outdoor and watertheme parks by 2019.
As the level of consumption among Chinese citizens enhances with the rise of income,international and domestic brands are locked in a fierce battle to grab a share of the themepark market.
"The proportion of education, culture and recreation consumption hasincreased with the growth of consumption expenditure per capita, whichhas provided an important foundation for theme park development," saidTimothy Chen, director of advisory services at Colliers International forEast China.
Chinese consumption expenditure per capita reached 15,712 yuan($2,300) last year - up 8.4 percent compared with a year earlier.
Chen said the mainland's theme park market has entered a new era, withwell-known international theme park brands and their domesticcounterparts having begun to compete directly and fiercely.
According to a report by the US-based Themed Entertainment Association,China grabbed four places among the world's top 10 theme-parkdevelopers last year - OCT Parks China, Chimelong Group, Fantawild andSongcheng Worldwide.
While average attendance at the top 10 theme parks reached 4.47 millionin 2015, the number of visitors at Zhuhai's Chimelong Ocean Kingdomalone hit 7.49 million, according to Colliers International.
The battle for theme park development comes at a time when the Chinese tourism market isexpanding rapidly. Last year, Chinese and overseas visitors made 4.12 billion trips in thecountry, generating revenue of more than 4 trillion yuan, according to government statistics.
While the market's huge potential means a golden opportunity for domestic players, theunprecedented entry of overseas rivals also poses a serious challenge.
Most domestic theme parks in the country don't have an attractive theme and storyline, andcan only be categorized as amusement parks, China Tourism Academy head Dai Bin said.
"It's not that you display a dinosaur or an Ultraman model there and then you can call it atheme park. Instead, it's a place where people go in pursuit of some kind of emotion or value.Theme parks are like a live space where visitors can interact with it," he said.
Chen agreed, saying that although many mainland theme park developersand operators are major real-estate developers with strong financialcapability and are more knowledgeable about the local market, their majorweakness is the lack of well-known IP (intellectual property).
"They need to be more innovative and creative to construct more themesbased on the knowledge of the local culture and art to differentiate their projects from theircompetitors," he said.
Domestic theme parks are also criticized for their homogenization of products and low-qualityservices. Many of them generate revenue, mainly from ticket sales with few supporting productsor services, such as hotels, food and beverage outlets, and retail. A 2015 industry reportshowed that about 80 percent of domestic theme parks had gone bankrupt in the past decade.
However, some theme park operators see the arrival of top international theme parks as beingmore positive rather than a threat to their survival.
"The opening of Shanghai Disneyland and Universal Studios in Beijing will indeed deal a blowto domestic theme parks. But, seeing from another perspective, domestic players can get aglimpse of how they design their products and manage them," said Zhao Xiaobing, generalmanager of Beijing and Tianjin Happy Valley - a popular theme park on the mainland.
"Dancing with the wolf' will help us transform and upgrade faster," he told China Tourism News.
Chinese tourists are now exhibiting a growing interest in leisure tourism, which partly explainsthe explosion of theme parks across the country.
Between July and August this year - a peak season for tourism when students are on holiday -five of the top 10 most popular domestic tourist resorts were theme parks, according to onlinetravel agency Ctrip. It was also the first time Shanghai Disneyland had surpassed theForbidden City in Beijing to become the country's most popular tourist resort.
"I prefer to go to international theme parks like Disneyland because there are many cartooncharacters that resonate with my memory," said Wei Zijing, a 19-year-old student at ShenzhenUniversity.
Wen Jing, a 33-year-old mother of a three-year-old boy, said she has high expectations of theopening of theme parks by Chinese firms.
"Themes and stories that develop from Chinese history and culture will appeal to me most," shesaid.