How a poor Chinese province is betting on giant robots and cyberpunk castles to boost incomes

Giant robots and futuristic cyberpunk castles rise out of lush mountain slopes on the outskirts of Guiyang, the capital of one of China’s poorest provinces.

China’s first virtual reality theme park aims to ride a boom in demand for virtual entertainment that is set to propel tenfold growth in the country’s virtual reality market, to hit almost US$8.5 billion by 2020.

The 134-hectare park in southwestern Guizhou province promises 35 virtual reality attractions, from shoot-’em-up games and virtual roller coasters to tours with interstellar aliens of the region’s most scenic spots.

“After our attraction opens, it will change the entire tourism structure of Guizhou province as well as China’s southwest,” says chief executive Chen Jianli.

“This is an innovative attraction, because it’s just different,” he says.

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The US$1.5 billion Oriental Science Fiction Valley park, part of which is scheduled to open next February, is part of China’s plan to develop new drivers of growth centred on trends such as gaming, sports and cutting-edge technology, to cut reliance on traditional industries.

Guizhou is luring firms such as Apple, which has sited its China data centre there, while the world’s largest radio telescope is in nearby Pingtang county.

The park is touted as the first of its kind, although virtual-reality-based attractions from the United States to Japan already draw interest from consumers and video gamers.

The park will offer tourists bungee jumps from a huge Transformer-like robot, and a studio devoted to producing virtual reality films. Most rides will use VR goggles and motion simulators.

“You feel like you’re really there,” says Qu Zhongjie, the park’s manager of rides. “That’s our main feature.”

Farmers in the nearby village of Zhangtianshui say they are concerned about pollution from big developments, but look forward to the economic benefits a new theme park would bring. Most are less sure about virtual battles or alien invasions.

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“There are lots of good things that come out of these projects,” says one farmer, Liu Guangjun. “As for virtual reality, I don’t really understand it.”

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