HENGQIN •China's newest destination hot spot just got a booster shot from Ronaldo's Real Madrid football club.
The Spanish giants have announced that they will open an interactive "virtual reality" complex in Hengqin, in partnership with Hong Kong-listed developer Lai Sun Group.
The 12,000 sq m venue, set to open in 2021, will include virtual reality entertainment and a museum showcasing the history of the club.
Just a stone's throw across a narrow waterway from the world's largest gambling hub Macau, the former oyster-farming island is being transformed into China's newest tourism haven.
Dubbed by some as China's answer to Florida's Orlando - a global tourism magnet with its cluster of major theme parks, including Walt Disney World - Hengqin has seen property prices more than double over the past two years.
While still a dusty mass of construction sites, Hengqin now draws millions annually to its anchor attraction, the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom theme park, with a slew of hotels, malls and residential developments being built nearby.
The transformation of Hengqin, which is three times as large as Macau, is part of Beijing's efforts to bolster links among Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in the Pearl River Delta region.
"Hengqin will be the Orlando of China. Macau is Las Vegas (and) Hong Kong is New York," said Mr Larry Leung, an executive with Lai Sun that is helping to build the Real Madrid complex at its Novotown project in Hengqin.
Novotown's entertainment mix will also feature China's first Lionsgate movie world with theme rides from blockbuster films such as Hunger Games and Twilight, as well as a National Geographic educational centre.
And high-end hotel chains and luxury-yacht makers are building more hotels and a marina on Hengqin.
Chinese officials see Hengqin helping Macau diversify from casinos to a more wholesome tourism industry.
More than 80 per cent of Macau's public revenues come from the gambling sector.
Realtors expect property prices to keep rising once a sea bridge linking to Hong Kong and a high-speed rail station are completed.
Mr Hoffman Ma, deputy chairman of Success Universe Group which operates the Ponte 16 casino in Macau, said Hengqin could take some convention and exhibition business away from the former Portuguese colony.
"It doesn't make sense for Macau to do that due to a consistent labour shortage," he added, noting that both Macau and Hengqin can find their own niches.
Industry reports show that 8.5 million people visited Hengqin's theme park last year, more than Hong Kong Disneyland's 6.1 million and almost a third of the 28 million people who visited Macau last year.
The Real Madrid tie-up should help Hengqin score higher visitorship numbers.