In the early 1980s in China, theme parks were considered one of the marks of development. This was an unexpected consequence of China’s opening to the world in the 1970s. When Western diplomats and statesmen first started visiting China in large numbers they were subjected to relentless hospitality. And when, in the late 1970s, it came their turn to reciprocate, theme parks were high on the list of tourist spots to be visited. Chinese officials were deeply impressed by the Disneylands and Five Flags of the world and on their return spread the message that there was no development without theme parks and revolving restaurants.
China Travel Hong Kong was given the task of developing the OCT theme parks and the first one was Splendid China, all China’s tourist attractions in miniature. Much has been made of Splendid China’s debt to the Dutch theme park Madurodam, similarly a collection of Holland’s tourist attractions in miniature. And indeed it had originally been proposed that the park be named Splendid China Madurodam. But the real inspiration for Splendid China came, not from Holland, but from Taoyuan, Taiwan where a similar Chinese theme park had been in operation since 1984. The popular Chinese name of Splendid China, Xiao Ren Guo, or Land of Small People, was exactly the same as the Taiwanese park’s name.
Splendid China opened its gates in 1989 and immediately tourists from all over China came to see its meticulously maintained replicas of famous sites peopled by tiny people made by the Foshan Ceramics Works. In 1991 the Folk Customs Park, featuring displays of the folk customs of China’s minorities, followed. In 1994, Windows on the World opened with miniature models of world tourist attractions and mind-blowingly elaborate evening dance and drama performances. And in 1998, Happy Valley became Shenzhen’s answer to Disneyland.
It is sometimes said that Shenzhen is not a tourist city but this ignores the seven million domestic tourists who visit the city each year. For most of these visitors the OCT theme parks are the prime attractions.