IT'S being touted as China's answer to Orlando, a US$5 billion (RM15.9 billion) resort and theme park complete with a mega rollercoaster and a whale shark tank situated on a sleepy southern island next to the world's biggest gambling hub Macau.
Chimelong, which is set to partially open next month, is the linchpin of China's ambitious plans to expand Hengqin into a leisure hub similar to the coastal US city globally renowned for its natural attactions and theme-park resorts by Walt Disney Co and Universal Studios.
And while some extravagant infrastructure projects in China have turned into white elephants, the odds are on Hengqin's side largely due to the support of the Beijing government and the island's proximity to the millions of tourists who throng to Macau every year.
"I don't have many doubts that it will be successful," said Philip Tulk, director of equities research at Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong, referring to the island which the government designated as a special economic zone five years ago.
"The mainland people are looking for entertainment and travel options that are reasonably easy. They strongly desire new and interesting places to go to and if Chimelong can deliver on that, it will be massively successful," he added.
The construction boom on Hengqin, just a 10-minute drive from Macau, comes at a time when mega-resorts are being developed in Asia in places like Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam to tap the region's growing ranks of wealthy tourists.
Macau welcomed almost 30 million visitors last year, but the government's plans to increase that number are being stymied by a lack of land and strained infrastructure and services.
Enter Hengqin, which is three times the size of Macau and which boasts long beaches and thick, mountainous forests.
"Macau is small and there are too many people. It needs to be expanded. Chimelong is a good complement. It is positioned as leisure tourism," said Niu Jing, director of the administrative committee, or local government, of the Hengqin New Area.
Hengqin has been part of the central government's plan to develop the Pearl River Delta since 2008, and the island is being groomed as a test bed for political and economic projects between the southern Guangdong province and the special administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong.
The Hengqin model also fits in with China's plans to boost consumer spending to lift the economy and wean growth away from the manufacturing sector.
Local officials say Hengqin has so far attracted investments worth 240 billion yuan (RM124.7 billion) from companies like Hong Kong conglomerate Shun Tak, Italian luxury yacht maker Ferretti and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.
Pansy Ho, Hong Kong's richest woman and managing director of Shun Tak, calls Hengqin the perfect solution for Macau.
"We need to work on a plan to assimilate and to make sure that in the future, Macau would be in the centre of things but also integrated with the development and the future of the whole Pearl River delta," said Ho, the daughter of Macau gambling godfather Stanley Ho.
Hengqin is connected to Macau through two underwater tunnels. By 2016, it will also be linked to Macau in the east and Hong Kong to the north by a bridge. Rail services will also be extended to Hengqin.
The marine-themed Chimelong resort, headed by Chinese businessman Su Zhigang, is the biggest project to open on the island this year.
Its coral-hued towers, topped by blue onion-domes, will house 1,880 hotel rooms, a conference centre, a spa and an indoor water park.
The island is also hoping to lure business with tax breaks and new financial policies that include al-lowing companies to develop offshore business in foreign currencies and piloting the exchange of the renminbi, Macau pataca and Hong Kong dollar. Reuters