Theme parks fail to thrill foreign investors

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While local investors revel in building theme parks, foreign investors steer clear of them, wary of the industry that claims to be an investment goldmine


Twin brothers receive a mascot welcome at the Dam Sen theme park in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnamese-owned CT Group is presently implementing plans to develop a Disneyland-style theme park in a 420-hectare patch in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Chanh District.

The project, which gained government approval in 1999, will include a township, office buildings, trading centers and a theme park offering ecological and cultural attractions. Its cost is estimated at US$1 billion and it is due to begin operations by 2015.

Another Vietnamese entertainment project developer, Suoi Tien Group, broke ground last year with its second theme park project called Son Tien Ecotourism in Dong Nai Province. Its first success was with the 55- hectare Suoi Tien Park in HCMC.

Tran My Duyen, deputy director of the group's business development department, said it estimated that it would invest $1 billion for the second park in addition to $263 million needed for the group to expand the first park with an additional 55 hectares.

Duyen said the group aimed to attract foreign tourists to its ecotourism park project consisting of a resort, shopping mall, school, hospitals and conference and finance centers.

She said the group had another $15 million idea to develop a cable-car route linking the two theme parks.

The Suoi Tien Group has attracted 40 million visitors over the last 15 years and their theme park is the most successful in the country.

Potential

Tran Kim Chung, chairman of CT Group, thinks the theme park industry, which has grown 16 percent a year of late in major cities, is a promising sector in Vietnam.

"There is a great deal of potential within the high-class segment of the market. Presently there are no modern theme parks that meet the demands of high income Vietnamese in the country," said Chung.

Meanwhile, Thibault Paquin, principal at Celebrating Life Company, said Asia was expected to become the world's largest market for theme parks in the next 15 years, as the region accounts for 60 percent of the world's population.

Paquin said the region has attracted world leaders in amusement like Disneyland, Universal Studios and Legoland, who have developed theme parks in Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Japan and Korea.

Vietnam lacks these big names and instead has theme parks developed by local firms that include Dai Nam in Binh Duong Province, Bao Son Paradise in Hanoi and Underwater World in Nha Trang.

Pham Trung Luong, deputy director of Institute for Tourism Development Research, recognizes that theme park development is a tool with which a country can develop tourism. The Vietnamese government supports this kind of development as a move to diversify and enrich the country's tourism industry.

Luong said local investors developed theme parks that were a mix of old and new with features of national heritage alongside modern touches in nearby urban areas while developments in non-urban areas like beaches or World Heritage sites, like Ha Long Bay and Phong Nha Ke Bang Cave, were rare in the country.

Lack of foreign interest

Luong laments that no foreign investors are excited at the prospect of joining the industry.

Steve Shah, senior project director of Canada-based planning and design firm Forrec, said Vietnam didn't have a large enough theme park market to attract foreign investors, but he said potential would develop in the coming years as incomes continue to rise.

Investors should plan small-scale and modernized parks and expand them later when the industry matures, Shah said.

But foreign firms seem to be more interested in hotels and resorts with electronic games or casinos serving as entertainment. It appears that they are not interested in investing huge amounts of capital in theme parks, Luong said.

Vietnam has a population of over 86 million which will reach 100 million by 2020. This will lead to a potential market where parks can meet locals' amusement needs and demands, said experts in the industry.

However, the demand would not be strong enough as a large percentage of the population has a low income and cannot afford the relatively expensive theme park tickets.

Authorities in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province are considering revoking a license that they granted to US-based Good Choice in 2008 to develop a $1.3 billion theme park called Wonderful World in the coastal province. The authorities said that the developer has yet to implement the project.

The country has already witnessed theme park project failures, namely Vietnam Water World and Saigon Water Park, from foreign investors due to low local demand. Investors suspended operations for years while they asked for approval from the local government to adjust their projects.

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