Hong Kong’s Ocean Park Thrives

By Robert Harland
writer Robert Harland interviews Ocean Park's chief executive Tom Mehrmann (Annie Chung photo)

writer Robert Harland interviews Ocean Park's chief executive Tom Mehrmann (Annie Chung photo)

Planning a visit to Hong Kong? Then you really must spend at least one day at the renowned Ocean Park on Hong Kong Island.

It’s a fascinating home-grown theme park with many stunning features including Giant Pandas, a huge aquarium displaying more than 5,000 fish, gut-wrenching rides, spectacular views, a memorable cable car ride, a magical Amazon-themed Rainforest attraction and much, much more,

Behind the scenes, Tom Mehrmann, the park’s American chief executive knows it takes a lot of hard work to keep the fun and excitement alive to maintain the park’s position as one of the world’s premier tourist spots.

Mehrmann took over the reins at Ocean Park in 2004 when the park and the entire Hong Kong tourist industry was struggling to recover from the disastrous SARS outbreak in 2003.

SARS Crisis

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) first appeared in February 2002 in China’s Guangdong Province before emerging in neighboring Hong Kong in late February. The epidemic had a huge negative impact on tourism around the world, especially on Hong Kong.

“It’s been quite a ride since those dark days of SARS”, says the 52 year-old Mehrmann. “But today business has never been better. Annual visitor numbers have almost doubled since 2004 to six million.

Mehrmann credits much of this success to the ‘can do’ attitude and hard working approach to life of his Hong Kong staff combined with a highly motivated board of directors headed by billionaire businessman Allan Zeman.

Ocean Park opened in 1977 funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club with land provided free by the Hong Kong Government. It ceased to be a subsidiary of the Jockey Club in 1987, becoming its own statutory body, with a Government-appointed Board.

Today the park is managed by the Ocean Park Corporation, a financially independent, non-profit organization.

Although a non-profit organization, it’s been making money for eight straight years.

Surplus ploughed back

“The park’s ‘profit’ is regarded as a surplus and is ploughed back in to the business enabling us not only to maintain our current attractions to the highest levels, but also to introduce new attractions,” Mehrmann added.

His basic philosophy is that all attractions have to be culturally relevant. So with that in mind he and his team drew up a master plan in 2004 which will eventually see some 70 attractions in the years to come.

The park has also benefited from the Chinese government’s move to allow its nationals to travel freely to places like Hong Kong.

“These days over 50 per cent of our visitors are from mainland China. 40 per cent are locals with ten per cent from other countries.

“Basically our visors fall into two categories. Those who are on group tours and they tend to only stay a few hours and those traveling individually who usually make a full day of it. Interestingly, most of our customers from the Philippines are individual travelers and tend to spend an entire day at the park.”

A life of theme parks
Robert Harland Jr's tries his hand at writing his name in Chinese (Robert Harland photo)

Robert Harland Jr's tries his hand at writing his name in Chinese (Robert Harland photo)

Mehrmann has been the theme park business all his working life. “I started as sweeper in a theme park in Florida back in 1977 when looking for part time work to pay my way through college.”

He enjoyed theme park life so much he stayed on after graduating and worked his way up the ladder at numerous parks ending up as vice president and general manager of the Warner Brother’s Park in Madrid, Spain.

His move to Hong Kong was a major step, but he’s never looked back.

“Hong Kong  is a great place to live and work. It’s such a vibrant city and the local work force is second-to-none. Its easy to see why this small territory has done so well when you see how hard-working and conscientious its people are.”

A bright future

And what’s to come? Mehrmann is bullish on the future of Ocean Park.

“It certainty looks very bright and we are confident we can maintain the park’s strong growth, especially with the many exiting soon to be launched new attractions including Thrill Mountain and Polar Adventure.”

Robert Harland Jr with mum Stessie enjoying one of the many rides at Ocean Park (Robert Harland photo)

Robert Harland Jr with mum Stessie enjoying one of the many rides at Ocean Park (Robert Harland photo)

But Ocean Park is not only about entertaining millions of visitors each year. It also channels surplus funds into the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation which promotes major conservation projects for dolphins, whales and giant pandas plus programs involving birds, reptiles and amphibians in many parts of Asia.

If you do plan to visit Hong Kong and need a modestly priced, but good quality hotel, my favorite is the Ibis in North Point on Hong Kong Island. Stunning harbor views, very clean and a great location.

Submitted on Friday, September 30, 2011

Advertisements

Levy on Plastic Bags Scores in Hong Kong

By Robert Harland
Plastic bag pollution - a major problem

Plastic bag pollution - a major problem

We’d all like to see fewer plastic bags littering our streets and beauty spots. There’s been a lot of talk over the years about banning all plastics here, but is this a practical solution?

I was in Hong Kong last week and was surprised to be asked to pay 50 Hong Kong cents (Php2.80) for a bag when I shopped at a Wellcome Supermarket. But I was with a Chinese friend who promptly produced a bag from his pocket and we were on our way.

The 50 HK cent plastic bag levy, part of the Hong Kong government’s efforts to reduce waste, was introduced at all major retailers in the territory in mid-2009. An average Hong Kong resident uses three bags a day.

The government mounted a major awareness campaign so when the levy came into force few shoppers were surprised by it. Indeed, as green awareness grows in Hong Kong, most shoppers were happy to bring their own bags.

The levy aims to reduce plastic bag usage by 50 per cent. It is estimated that Hongkongers throw away more than eight billion bags every year.

And the project has been great success. According to the latest survey, the amount of plastic bags from supermarkets, convenience stores and medical and cosmetics shops going into landfill is down by a whopping 75 per cent.

The levy currently applies to about 2,000 major supermarkets and chain stores, but it’s anticipated it will be extended to all retail outlets.

What about a similar scheme here in Bacolod? And why not make a plastic bag expensive – what about Php5 or Php10 each?

Plastic bag pollution - a major problem

Plastic bag pollution - a major problem

In Hong Kong the levy is paid to the government, but perhaps in the case of Bacolod, the retailers should be allowed to keep the money. Not only would they have an incentive to comply with any ordinances, it would also avoid yet another layer of bureaucracy to collect the money. And for goodwill how about retailers donating the income after expenses to charity?

Initially such a scheme could begin with supermarkets and grocery stores. It would need a lot of publicity and there would need to be a system of policing it to make sure retailers comply with the law.

Stores might have an issue with security, but I’m sure any such problems could be overcome.

No doubt there would be some opposition by shoppers. But any move that reduces the menace of the  plastic bag should surely be welcome by all Bacoleños who care for their city.

It works well in Hong Kong. So why not in Bacolod?

Submitted on Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Film Maker Presents VP With Latest Feature

Hazel Stuart presents VP Binay with her 50th documentary film  on the Philippines

Hazel Stuart presents VP Binay with her 50th documentary film on the Philippines

British TV documentary film maker and Bacolod resident Hazel Stuart presented Vice President Jejomar Binay on Saturday with the 50th film she has made on the Philippines.

She also presented the VP with DVDs of 20 of her previous productions.

Under the series heading of ‘A Grain of Sand’, the 50th documentary features the sights and sounds of the Western Visayas.

Mrs Stuart and her late husband, American David Stuart, started making TV documentary films on the Philippines in 1998 when they were based in Iloilo.

The films have been shown extensively in the Philippines and around the world. They have also won numerous accolades including five coveted International Communicator Awards for creative excellence.

Said Mrs Stuart: 天P Binay has seen many of our productions and has always been a great supporter. I was proud to have been able to present the 50th documentary to him, but I only wish my late husband had been there to share that wonderful moment with me”.

Dama of the Night

By Robert Harland
The Dama de Noche flower

The Dama de Noche flower

I recently came across a very strongly-scented shrub in a garden on an early morning walk. I was told it was a Philippine plant called the Dama de Noche. I was also told there was a legend about this unusual shrub.

With my curiosity aroused, I did some research and found an interesting story.

Long ago, the legend says, there was a beautiful native princess. She had a strange quality for feeling deep emotions – even as a baby her parents noticed she would laugh when somebody in the house was happy, and cry when somebody in the house was sad.

As a young lady she had a remarkable ability to empathize with people; identifying with how they felt. In the local dialect the word for ‘feel’ was “dama,” so she became known as Princess Dama.

She was also very fond of perfume. She and her maids would experiment with different flowers and plants in the vast gardens of the royal residence to make perfume.

According to the folk tale, she always smelled fresh and fragrant especially in the night. When her suitors visited her they would always enjoy her sweet and fragrant scent.

But one day Princess Dama became desperately ill. Despite the frantic efforts of her doctors her condition worsened.  Even local village healers tried to help, but to no avail. All everyone could do was watch her slowly fade away.

Her funeral was a sad, but lavish affair with bouquets and garlands of flowers and her body was bathed in perfume. He suitors watched helplessly as the beauty they once admired so much was lowered into her final resting place in the gardens of the royal house.

Some time later one night, the tale continues, an unusual shrub was seen growing from the spot where Dama had been buried. When it bore flowers, they emitted a sweet and highly fragrant scent at night.

Everyone was convinced it was Dama “visiting us at night”. So the plant became known as “Dama of the night” – Dama de Noche.

Apart from emitting a beautiful scent, the Dama de Noche plant has many valuable medicinal qualities including  an extract used by the poor in rural areas as a treatment for epilepsy.

Britain’s Most Expensive House

By Robert Harland

I know of a house in Bacolod which cost over Php200m to build. It’s quite a place. But imagine what you’d get if you spent Php9.5 billion for a house.

Park Place - a snip at Php9.5 billion

Park Place - a snip at Php9.5 billion

That’s just what an anonymous Russian billionaire has paid for an 18th-century country house in England making it the highest price ever paid for a home in Britain.

Park Place, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, was once home to Frederick Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King George II.  The Franco-Italianate mansion, which backs onto the River Thames, is set in 81 hectares of parkland. It as 27 bedrooms, listed monuments, houses, cottages, stables, a home cinema, helipad, spa complex, a boat house and a very high-tech security system.

It still has its original stone fireplaces and some windows still bear ornate stained glass.

The estate, which also boasts two golf courses, was purchased by British property developer Michael Spink in 2007 for around 42 million British pounds (Php2.8 billion).  He then spent a small fortune on renovations but still made a handsome profit when the unnamed buyer made the gigantic purchase.

Press reports said that some members of staff at the estate agents selling the property, Savills and Knight Frank, were so surprised by the huge price that they initially thought the decimal point was in the wrong place.

Park Place - Britain's most expensive house

Park Place - Britain's most expensive house

The purchase was handled by an offshore company in an attempt to keep the buyer’s name a secret, but he is believed to be a Russian oligarch.

The property, which was used as a boarding school until 1998, has an interesting past. Greek shipping magnate John Latsis is among the estate’s previous owners and the ghost of former resident Mary Blandy, who was accused of poisoning her father with arsenic in 1752, is rumored to haunt the grounds.

She claimed she thought the arsenic was a love potion that would make her father approve of her relationship with an army officer. But the judge did not believe her and she was hanged on Easter Monday 1752 outside Oxford Castle prison.

Marapara Rotary Launches Healthy Eating Program

Marapara Rotary president Chef Rico Cajili (left) and club director and NDB contributor Chef Robert Harland serve up bowls of Arroz Caldo

Marapara Rotary president Chef Rico Cajili (left) and club director and NDB contributor Chef Robert Harland serve up bowls of Arroz Caldo

The Rotary Club of Bacolod Marapara launched a healthy eating and feeding program on Friday at the Antonio Chan Memorial Technical Training Center in Bata Subdivision, Bacolod City, for local residents.

Led by club president and Bacolod restaurateur, Chef Rico Cajili, the project is designed to create wider awareness good nutrition, using inexpensive but nutritious ingredients.

First meal on the menu was a tasty Arroz Caldo. Cajili stressed the importance of including the freshest of ingredients especially vegetables. He added that with a little imagination one can make a wide variety of delicious and healthy meals at very little cost.

“This is a feeding program with a difference”, Cajili said. “Apart from providing local people with a healthy meal, the central theme of this new program is to demonstrate how families can benefit from good nutrition without spending too much money.”

To fund its many community projects, the club stages the annual ‘Rotary-Golf for a Cause’ tournament held at the Negros Occidental Golf and Country Club.

Robert Harland Jr's tries his hand at writing his name in Chinese (Robert Harland photo) Aside
Filipino entrepreneurship: If you've the determination and skill, it doesn't take much for a Filipino to set up a business. This barber charges Php20 for a haircut in his roadside 'salon' in the Reclamation Area in Bacolod City and is doing good business. (Photo: Robert Harland)

Filipino entrepreneurship: If you've the determination and skill, it doesn't take much for a Filipino to set up a business. This barber charges Php20 for a haircut in his roadside 'salon' in the Reclamation Area in Bacolod City and is doing good business. (Photo: Robert Harland)

Filipino entrepreneurship

Aside
Joemarie Vargas (l) discusses disaster relief plans with American Fred Hillman, retired law enforcement captain with the Cleveland, Ohio Department of Veteran Affairs and now resident in Negros Occidental.

Joemarie Vargas (l) discusses disaster relief plans with American Fred Hillman, retired law enforcement captain with the Cleveland, Ohio Department of Veteran Affairs and now resident in Negros Occidental.

Guest speaker Joemarie Vargas (3rd right), head of Bacolod City's Disaster Management Office, with members of the local expat community at the group's monthly meeting at Nature's Village in Talisay on Saturday. Vargas outlined the city's plans to address disasters such as earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions. (l-r) Americans Ralph Huntington, Bob Hilicker, Larry Bullock, Burnie Bennett, German Gunther Petters and Briton Hazel Stuart.
Guest speaker Joemarie Vargas (3rd right), head of Bacolod City’s Disaster Management Office, with members of the local expat community at the group’s monthly meeting at Nature’s Village in Talisay on Saturday. Vargas outlined the city’s plans to address disasters such as earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions. (l-r) Americans Ralph Huntington, Bob Hilicker, Larry Bullock, Burnie Bennett, German Gunther Petters and Briton Hazel Stuart.

Bacolod City’s Disaster Management Office

The Volkswagon L1 - 109 km per liter of gas

Volkswagon’s hyper-fuel efficient car?

By Robert Harland
The Volkswagon L1 - 109 km per liter of gas

The Volkswagon L1 - 109 km per liter of gas

I don’t know if it’s true or a hoax, but here’s a story doing the rounds that Volkswagon is about to launch a two seater car in China costing just US$600 (Php26,000). Even better is the claim it will do over 100 kilometers to one liter of gas.

All sounds too good to be true? But there may be something in it. Volkswagon’s PR people declined to comment for this story despite several requests for information.

If its true then I’m definitely going to buy at least two. Let’s look at what one will get for Php26,000.

The two-seater Volkswagon L-1 was originally a concept car designed to prove that one liter of fuel could deliver 100km of travel. It has a carbon fiber body so it’s super light at just 290kg, anti-lock brakes; airbag and an electronic stability program. It holds 6.5 liters of gas and has a top speed of around 120kph.

The power plant is a 299cc single-cylinder diesel engine positioned ahead of the rear axle and combined with an automatic shift controlled by a knob in the interior.

Safety was not compromised as the impact and roll-over protection is comparable to the GT racing cars.

All this for Php26,000? Come off it!

Numerous bloggers claim Volkswagen did a lot of very highly protected testing of this car in Germany, but it was not announced until now where the car would make it’s first appearance. Allegedly, the car was introduced at a VW stockholders meeting as the most economical car in the world.

But the Utility Consumers’ Action Network (UCAN) – a US-based non-profit, public interest consumer advocacy group – claims the bloggers have the price wrong.

UCAN writer Charles Langley says for  600 bucks he wouldn’t mind getting passed by cement trucks, risking his life on the freeway or being outrun by golf carts. But, unfortunately, he says the $600 price tag is fiction.

It is a real car he adds, but the price is closer to US$26,000 (Php1.09m). That sounds more realistic and like most Volkswagens these days, rather pricey.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that the project had been scrapped, but later restarted. It’s critical of the design saying that passengers will have to sit bobsled style with their legs around the driver’s seat. At this stage no information about where the car might be launched have been announced. And there’s no mention as to where the luggage will go.

Oh well, it was a nice thought that I might be able to buy such a cute new car for Php26,000. I’ll keep dreaming.