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Travel & Leisure

Universal Studios opens Beijing park to crowds despite tensions

Resort welcomed amid COVID outbreak and low in ties with Washington

Rainy weather failed to keep away crowds from the opening of Universal Studios Beijing on Monday.    © AP

BEIJING -- Universal Studios opened its long-awaited first Chinese theme park in Beijing on Monday to crowds and political symbolism that would have seemed unlikely when the unit of U.S. telecommunications company Comcast unveiled the project in 2014.

Media affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party hailed the arrival of the park behind the wildly popular Kung Fu Panda series as a sign that there is no knee-jerk anti-Americanism in the country despite strained bilateral relations.

The mood music around the multibillion-dollar Universal Beijing Resort (UBR) presents a sharp contrast to the saber-rattling between Washington and Beijing, most recently over a U.S. plan announced last week to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.

Qin Gang, Beijing's new ambassador in Washington, even offered his preopening ride on a roller coaster at the park as a metaphor for China-U. S. relations. "After all the tumbling and shakes, the roller coaster came to a soft landing in the end," he wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

Universal Beijing underscores China's tendency to embrace international brands to promote its economic standing -- and foreign business' keenness to tap the country's growing middle class.

The park, which took about 20 years to complete, is a 70-30 joint venture between a subsidiary of state-owned Beijing Tourism Group and Comcast's Universal Parks & Resorts unit.

The partners are understood to have invested more than 45 billion yuan ($6.96 billion) in the project, with Comcast noting in its annual report that its balance sheet included $5.1 billion in Universal Beijing assets as of Dec. 31. The company had originally estimated the budget at 20 billion yuan, but raised its sights after Shanghai Disney Resort's successful opening in 2016.

Song Yu, chairman of Beijing Tourism, told local media last month that the new park would meet Chinese demand for high-quality leisure and boost local consumption. "Universal Beijing will become a new attraction for visitors to Beijing, apart from the Forbidden City and the Great Wall," he said.

Located about 30 km east of the center of the Chinese capital, it is Universal Studios' fifth theme park, its third in Asia, after Singapore and Osaka, and its largest in the world. Spread over 4 sq. km, it boasts 37 rides and attractions themed around seven blockbuster movies, two hotels and more than 20 shops.

Universal says the new park has themes "reflecting China’s rich cultural heritage." (Photo by CK Tan) 

Rides include Kung Fu Panda Land of Awesomeness, Transformers Metrobase, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Jurassic World Isla Nublar and Minion Land. Another attraction, called Lights, Camera, Action, is based around the combined works of acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou and American Steven Spielberg.

"The UBR experience is unique to China, representing a collection of Universal's most popular attractions from around the world, as well as specially themed experiences reflecting China's rich cultural heritage," the park said in a statement.

Global Times, the nationalist Chinese tabloid, said last week that the park's opening is testament to the absence of the "[pervasive] anti-U.S. nationalism in China portrayed by Western media."

The People's Daily, Global Times' parent paper, said that local officials forecast the park will draw 10 million visitors a year during its first phase.

"By the completion of the project's third phase, the resort will host 30 million every year to become the largest Universal Studios theme park resort in the world, with an annual revenue of tens of billions of yuan," it reported.

But the launch comes as China battles an outbreak of the COVID-19 delta variant in southern Fujian Province, leading some local governments around the country to advise residents against interprovincial travel during this week's three-day Mid-Autumn Festival.

Still, despite admission tickets costing up to 748 yuan, a staffer said that all passes for the first few days of operations had been sold out.

"It's an American culture import, but I am going in anyway," said Zhu Yanfeng, a railway employee. Zhu, 31, grew up watching Harry Potter and Transformers movies and has been to Universal Studios Japan, so he did not mind paying 638 yuan to visit on Monday. "I am looking forward to roller coaster rides with my friends," he said.

On Chinese social media platform Weibo, some netizens questioned the "high ticket prices profiting the U.S." In response, one commentator wrote: "You should ask who approved the resort first."

Others lamented they would keep having to stump up to enjoy the Universal Beijing or Shanghai Disney until Chinese companies can build similarly compelling parks.

A former executive at Chinese theme park operator Chimelong Group is skeptical of the chances. "Hollywood themes reflect something that is not present in typical Chinese entertainment: that of a hero fighting against a tyrannical system," he said.

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