China’s sky-high ambitions to build the world’s largest everything have found a new outlet in Hengqin Island, a once sleepy southern isle that’s uncoincidentally located next to the world’s biggest gambling hub, Macau.
Guinness World Records just declared the island’s debut attraction, Ocean Kingdom, the world’s biggest aquarium. A staggering 48.75 million liters (12.87 million gallons) of salt and fresh water helped it usurp the title from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta when it officially opened to the public last weekend.
Yet, Ocean Kingdom’s superlatives don't stop there. The $806.5 million complex, a 15-minute drive from Macau, not only set the Guinness World Record for largest aquarium but it also broke four other records, mostly for its gargantuan whale shark exhibit, which is itself the world’s largest tank, with a volume of 22.7 million liters (5.99 million gallons) of salt water.
The whale shark tank features the world’s largest acrylic panel and largest aquarium window at 39.6 meters (129 feet, 11.05 inches) by 8.3 meters (27 feet, 2.77 inches), and similarly claims the world’s largest underwater viewing dome, with an external diameter of 12 meters (29 feet, 4.44 inches).
“Breaking any world record is amazing, but to become the world’s largest aquarium requires phenomenal creative vision and immense engineering efforts,” Rowan Simons, president of Guinness World Records Greater China, said at Ocean Kingdom’s official opening event last weekend. “The result is an incredible attraction experience, and Guinness World Records is delighted to recognize the five specific world-beating achievements that make it so special.”
Ocean Kingdom welcomed a half-million visitors during its unofficial “soft opening” in January, and the 143-hectare (353-acre) complex hopes to woo a large chunk of the 29 million tourists who visit Macau each year now that it’s opened in full. Each of the park’s seven sections ushers visitors through the world’s waterways from the Amazon to Antarctica, offering an up-close look at an array of creatures like whale sharks, tropical spotted dolphins and Chinese white dolphins.
Ocean Kingdom is connected by a 1,000-meter (3,280-foot) “Grand Canal” to the Chimelong Hengqin Bay Hotel, which claims to be the “largest ecologically themed hotel in China.” Both Hengqin Island attractions are part of the greater Chimelong International Ocean Resort, whose goal is to become Asia’s first themed resort combining animal exhibits, thrill rides and entertainment.
If Ocean Kingdom sounds like something of a mix between Magic Kingdom and SeaWorld, that’s precisely the point. The resort’s developer, Guangdong Chimelong Group, has stated that it hopes to turn Hengqin Island into “the Orlando of China,” using the Florida city as a model.
Chimelong Group made a name for itself in 2006 when it opened China’s largest theme park, Chimelong Paradise, in Guangzhou. PGAV Destinations, the St. Louis-based design team behind the new aquarium, is known for its regional work on Hong Kong’s Grand Aquarium and the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Xi’an, as well as attractions at SeaWorld, Universal Studios and Six Flags.
Both companies have their eyes squarely on the future of Hengqin.
Hengqin Island boasts just 8,000 residents, but the Chinese government estimates that its population could skyrocket to a quarter of a million in six year’s time. In addition to the myriad tourism projects in the pipeline -- including the world’s tallest Ferris wheel and longest wooden roller coaster -- the Special Economic Zone could also house a new university, dozens of hotels, three golf courses and two yacht clubs -- if all goes to plan.