Universal Studios Beijing draws eager throngs amid uneasy U.S.-China ties

September 22, 2021 - 1:44 PM
Visitors enter the Universal Beijing Resort as the Universal Studios theme park opens to the general public, in Beijing, China, September 20, 2021. (Reuters/Florence Lo)

BEIJING — Universal Studios’ Beijing resort opened its doors to the public on Monday after a two-decade wait, including delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The highly anticipated opening takes place amid U.S.-China relations that have deteriorated in recent years.

The park will be U.S.-based Universal‘s largest and its fifth globally. It is also a first for Beijing, which lacks a big branded theme park to rival the Disney resorts in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

And, it will be the first Universal park with a section dedicated to the movie “Kung Fu Panda” and includes an area based on the Harry Potter franchise, which is popular in China.

Amid light rain and tight security on Monday, a public holiday in China to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival, a steady stream of umbrella-wielding visitors entered the resort.

“When it comes to Universal Studios, we’re all big fans of Marvel movies,” said 27-year-old Beijing resident Pi Tiantian, who visited the park on Monday.

“We really want to experience this resort. This one here also really likes Harry Potter,” she added, pointing to a young male companion.

One Universal Studios employee told Reuters that visitor numbers were being capped at around 10,000 for Monday because of the pandemic but the park has the capacity for many more.

All 10,000 tickets for the opening, available in a pre-sale on Sept. 14, were sold out in three minutes, according to Trip.com Group.

“This is a rare time in a long while when an America-themed topic has attracted such obvious and widespread praise in China,” the Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, wrote last week.

Beijing-based visitors snatched 40% of the tickets for the first month, while the cities of Tianjin and Shanghai were the second- and third-largest sources of patrons, according to travel website qunar.com.

Still, many buyers complained on social media about ticket costs, which range from 418 yuan ($64.76) in the low season to 748 yuan during peak periods.

The resort was proposed 20 years ago by the Beijing Tourism Group, according to the official China Daily, and is 30% owned by Comcast Corp’s Universal Parks & Resorts and 70% by state-owned Beijing Shouhuan Cultural Tourism Investment.

The new Chinese ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, likened the park’s rollercoaster ride to ties between the two countries.

“After all the tumbling and shakes, the rollercoaster came to a soft landing in the end,” he tweeted on Sept. 14.

Universal Studios announced the development of the resort in 2014 at an estimated cost of $3.3 billion. In 2017, Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts said the park could provide $1 billion of operating cash flow per year once open.

The park is estimated to earn more than 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) a year in revenue with up to 12 million visits, according to state-run Beijing Daily.

($1 = 6.4549 yuan) —Additional reporting by Sophie Yu in Beijing and Chen Aizhu in Singapore; additional writing by Tom Daly; Editing by Tony Munroe, Christian Schmollinger and Bernadette Baum