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Holographic models, virtual jellyfish are the new draw in China

[HONG KONG] A holographic moon crystallises on a wall of mist. Amid the ooh-ahhs and clicking of cameras, jam-packed tourists gape at a 10-minute water and light show of tortoises, dolphins and virtual models donning the latest fashions of leather and fur.

During a national holiday week, more than 700,000 visitors swarmed to a new light-show theme park in Haining, a city near Shanghai that has the nation's largest leather mall. More than anywhere else in Asia, China has grasped the power of technologies such as holograms and augmented reality to engage a generation of travellers seeking new thrills.

At least 17 billion yuan (S$3.6 billion) of venture capital poured into the nation's travel sector in the two years through 2016.

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

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Haining, which hopes to rival light shows at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands and Sydney's Opera House, is competing with at least a dozen other cities in China that are using holographic shows and augmented reality to draw tourists.

As its dominance in leather goods is pinched by e-commerce, Haining's 50 million yuan park helped attract more than 3.9 million visitors since it opened in September, each paying about 80 yuan a ticket.

"The idea is simple, tourists come here to shop for leather during the day and they stay to watch the shows at night," said Zhou Wei, founder of Nth Power, the startup behind the city government's theme park. "It's not just the tickets, all of a sudden your restaurants and hotels are also booming."

Mr Zhou's company has managed about 30 such projects around the country, including a giant wall of touch-sensitive virtual jellyfish in an aquarium in southern Guizhou province. It used AR to exalt Chinese President Xi Jinping's five-year-achievement exhibition during the National Party Congress in Beijing.

TENCENT INVESTMENT

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 Ltd. plans to build an e-sports park with attractions based on popular anime characters and online game titles.

The country is not alone in its embrace of VR. From Universal Studios's Final Fantasy ride in Japan, to shooter and speed-racer games at Lotte World in Seoul, to the Marvel 4D motion ride in Busan, the technology has been especially popular among theme parks.

Mr Zhou's company, previously working in advertising, debuted its high-tech shows in 2016 when Chinese President Xi hosted a gala to entertain world leaders during the G-20 meeting. It made a mark by creating holograms dancing with real ballet performers to the music of Swan Lake.

Now the fanfare's spreading to other sectors: shopping malls, restaurants and property developers are all harnessing the technology. In China, Alibaba Group Holding has been using an AR game featuring a cat to lure users to shopping destinations and entertain them for retail festivals like Singles' Day. Ultraviolet, a restaurant in Shanghai, offers an immersive dining experience using lights and sound for 10,000 yuan per guest.

Similar attractions are appearing across the country. Guangzhou's zoo opened a VR zone this month that allows visitors to learn how bats hunt with augmented reality lenses, take selfies with virtual pandas, and throw dart balls at T-Rex projections.

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

As China pivots toward an economy driven by domestic spending, cities looking to entice the rapidly rising numbers of technology-immersed tourists will have little choice but to invest in evermore advanced systems to gain a share of the tourists' yuan.

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

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