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Haikou International Duty-Free Shopping Complex: Design and Project Management for a Location-based Experience

Weta Workshop CDF

Wētā Workshop partnered with China Duty Free Group (CDF) and Dafeng to transform the retail experience at the world’s largest duty-free shopping complex into a multisensory, immersive journey, setting the benchmark in the emerging retailtainment trend.

This bespoke location-based experience, The Forest at the Edge of the Sky, fills the massive, five-storey high and 50 metre-wide atrium and showcases the story of a fantastical Hainan.

Weta Workshop CDF

Invigorating the retail experience

Wētā Workshop’s challenge was to create a shopping experience which would draw customers into the physical space and become a visitor destination in its own right.

“People want experiences which take them out of their everyday worlds. They want to be moved emotionally and to be inspired. We wanted to completely rewrite the retail experience and bring something completely unexpected to a public space.”

Richard Taylor, Creative Director, CEO and Co-founder, Wētā Workshop
Weta Workshop Tree Haikou

The solution: a multi-sensory, immersive space

Wētā Workshop’s Location-based experiences (LBE) team led the conceptual and core design process of the atrium, creating a culturally rich and wonderfully unique location-based experience where shoppers are treated both as audience members and participants, in a fantastical, dreamlike world.

The project took place in 2022 while COVID 19 was still disrupting travel plans around the world. Our crew managed most of The Forest at the Edge of the Sky from New Zealand before Senior Creative Director, Andrew Thomas, and Designer, LiWen Choy, were able to visit Haikou and co-ordinate the physical install and on-site art direction in the project’s final stages.

Weta Workshop Tree Haikou

Cultivating a hyper-fantastical world

The Forest at the Edge of the Sky celebrates the natural environment of Hainan and amplifies it into a fantastical, immersive and interactive world within the mall’s atrium.

Wētā Workshop’s designers looked towards the local ecology of Hainan for inspiration when creating the experience.

“To transform the wonders of this natural world into the fantastical Forest at the Edge of the Sky, we designed and developed iconic flora and fauna of Hainan into beautifully stylised sculptural and architectural forms; creating an extraordinarily magical and joyous place for the visitors to experience.”

Andrew Thomas, Senior Creative Director, Wētā Workshop
Weta Workshop Interactive Screen

Be part of movie-magic

A 29m tall interactive LED screen invites guests to interact with it in four ways.

  1. On the hour, a vibrant animation tells the story of a boy and girl as they discover the hyper-fantastical version of Hainan.
  2. Standing on an illuminated floor may cast a visitor’s enlarged shadow on the ground, triggering the appearance of strange and remarkable creatures. Guests can interact with these creatures in wonderous, playful, humorous, and surprising ways.
  3. At other times, the screen becomes an abstracted, upside-down, digital waterfall which visitors can part as though pairing back curtains. Doing so reveals a new and enchanting vista from this fantastical world.
  4. Alternatively, guests’ shadows become part of the flowing waterfall as water giants, stretching the mall’s five stories.
Weta Workshop Interactive Screen

Interact with the Tree of Light

The 25m high Tree of Light features nearly 5,000 individually programmed orbs of ever-changing lights. It is interwoven with a functional spiral staircase and guests passing the orbs will cause them to gently shimmer, as if the tree is receiving and responding to their life energy.

The Tree of Light represents connectedness. Each orb is unique, however, together they form a single harmonious entity. For the most part, the music and movement between colours is slow and dreamy - as if the tree is gently breathing. However, once an hour it becomes the key feature of the awe-inspiring light show, connecting key elements in the experience.


Weta Workshop LBE Tree sculpture

Take an escalator through a tree

The 40m long escalator is more than just a mode of travel, as visitors are treated to a journey through light and sound within the trunk of a gigantic tree.

From the outside, the metallic clad sculpture appears heavy and solid. However, once inside, visitors discover kaleidoscopic facets of shifting light and colour, synced with a cinematic soundscape. Different light and sound sequences are activated as visitors pass through three interactive points until they emerge to panoramic views of the atrium.

Weta Workshop LBE Tree sculpture
Weta Workshop LBE Tree Dear Cropped

Flora and fauna amplified in colour

Made from geometric panels of colour, a larger-than-life deer and its fawn graze through the atrium. Look up and tree canopies hang from the architecture and colourful trees provide seating for weary shoppers. A giant hummingbird suspended mid-air, gathers nectar from a tree and the ecology of this fantastical version of Hainan is on full display.

Weta Workshop LBE Tree Dear Cropped

An outstanding statement of creativity

Haikou International Duty-Free Shopping Complex has received numerous accolades since opening at the end of 2022 with The Moodie Davitt Report hailing it as, “an outstanding statement of creativity and imagination captured (and executed) in one stunning location.” The experience was awarded the Trinity Award for Non-Airport Retailer of the Year: CDF Haikou International Duty-Free Shopping Complex and Best Commercial Complex of the Year – Platinum Award at the GBE HOPSCA Awards 2022-2023.


Learn more about Wētā Workshop’s Location-based Experience division and their incredible work.


*All images courtesy of Dafeng (excluding those credited to CDF).