Augmented, virtual reality are China's new tourism draws

Staff wearing virtual-reality goggles inspecting the attraction Fly Over Guizhou at Oriental Science Fiction Valley theme park in Guiyang, Guizhou province, China, in November last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • Mickey Mouse and gang in Shanghai Disney Resort should be worried about a new breed of showtime rivals.

During a recent national holiday week, more than 700,000 visitors swarmed to a new light-show theme park in Haining, a city near Shanghai that has China's largest leather mall.

They oohed and aahed over a 10-minute water and light show of tortoises, dolphins and virtual models donning the latest leather and fur fashions.

More than anywhere else in Asia, China has grasped the power of technologies such as holograms and augmented reality (AR) to engage folk seeking new thrills.

At least US$2.7 billion (S$3.6 billion) of venture capital has poured into the nation's travel sector in the two years through 2016.

"In the past, people looked for only basic, low-end package tours - now they want better adventures," said Mr Zhou Kai, a Beijing-based senior director at research firm Zero2IPO. "China's policymakers are quite supportive as such experiential tours help boost consumption and the economy."

Haining, which hopes to rival the light shows at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands and Sydney's Opera House, is competing with at least a dozen other cities in China.

As its dominance in leather goods is pinched by e-commerce, the Haining park has helped attract more than 3.9 million visitors since it opened in September last year, each paying about 80 yuan (S$17) a ticket.

"The idea is simple, tourists come here to shop for leather during the day and stay to watch the shows at night," said Mr Zhou Wei, founder of Nth Power, a start-up behind the city government's theme park.

"It's not just the tickets - all of a sudden, your restaurants and hotels are also booming."

His company has managed about 30 such projects around the country, including a giant wall of touch-sensitive virtual jellyfish in an aquarium in Guizhou province.

Some of China's biggest Internet players are wading in, often in partnership with local government.

In the city of Wuhu in Anhui province, social media giant Tencent Holdings plans to build an e-sports park with attractions based on popular anime characters and online game titles.

Now the fanfare is spreading to other sectors too. Shopping malls, restaurants and property developers are harnessing the technology.

Alibaba Group Holding has been using an AR game featuring a cat to lure users to shopping destinations and entertain them for retail festivals such as Singles' Day.

Ultraviolet, a restaurant in Shanghai, offers an immersive dining experience using light and sound for 10,000 yuan a guest.

Guangzhou's zoo opened a virtualreality (VR) zone this month that allows visitors to learn how bats hunt with AR lenses, take wefies with virtual pandas and throw dart balls at T-Rex projections.

Mount Putuo, a Buddhist pilgrimage site south-east of Shanghai, is building a hologram show featuring a gleaming figure of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara amid lotuses.

As China pivots towards an economy driven by domestic spending, cities looking to entice the rapidly rising numbers of technologyimmersed tourists will have little choice but to invest in ever more advanced attractions.

"Don't underestimate the demand for these VR hologram theme parks and shows for the cities in China," said Nth Power's Mr Zhou. "Places like Hangzhou and Hainan - that are already tourist destinations - all want this."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2018, with the headline Augmented, virtual reality are China's new tourism draws. Subscribe