It’s not a tourist destination known for its beauteous locations. Neither is it a cosmopolitan city that attracts millennials. So when Turner International India (a broadcasting network that runs children’s entertainment channels like Cartoon Network and Pogo) announced its ambitious plans to open Amaazia, a theme park, in Surat by 2019 (in partnership with real estate and hospitality firm Rajgreen Group), it raised some eyebrows. Turner International India, which has theme parks in Pattaya (Thailand) and Dubai (UAE), zeroed in on India, as the country’s “economic landscape” offers great opportunity, as per Sanjay Movaliya, chairman, Rajgreen Group.
But why Surat, a city known more for its diamond merchants and textiles than tourist attractions? “Surat is fast becoming a major investment hub (as per India’s Growth Paradigm, a 2017 report by Ernst & Young) due to favourable demographics and increased consumption trends. It was also ranked by global investors as the fifth-most attractive investment destination after metros in Ernst & Young’s 2015 Attractiveness Survey,” says Anand Singh, senior director, Cartoon Network Enterprises, south Asia, Turner International India. “The city is also witnessing the rise of various infrastructure projects, which boost connectivity and mobility.
The theme park will attract visitors not just from neighbouring cities such as Mumbai, Vadodara, Rajkot and Ahmedabad, but also from across the country,” says Singh. Clearly, location is an important indicator for any theme park to survive. It’s no wonder then that a majority are either located in cities that attract urban masses in huge numbers or in areas that draw visitors from nearby places. “The majority of the audience comes from the immediate vicinity or catchment areas. In addition, this audience contributes to repeat visitations,” says Dhimant Bakshi, joint CEO, Adlabs Entertainment, which runs the Adlabs Imagica theme park off the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.
The global theme park market is currently valued at Rs 2.7 lakh crore. As per a 2017 report by FICCI and KPMG, the Indian theme park industry grew at 10.25% to reach Rs 2,930 crore in 2016, up from Rs 2,660 crore in 2015. The report, Theme Parks: Get Ready For the Ride, pegged the Indian industry at Rs 6,980 crore by 2021, growing at 19.1%. The report, however, stressed on the need for major investment to attract a global audience.
Theme parks are different from amusement parks, as they not only have rides, but also retail stores, restaurants, etc, unified by a central theme. “For Amaazia, we have partnered with Sanderson Group, an Australian multinational firm, known for the development of integrated destinations, including theme parks, water parks, hotels and malls. Considering the risk factor that comes with theme parks, the safety of our audience has been given top priority,” says Movaliya of Rajgreen Group. The park, planned to be built at a cost of Rs 450 crore, will have 33 theme-based attractions, as well as 20 water slides spread across 61,000 sq m.
India, which got its first amusement park in Appu Ghar in 1984, almost 30 years after the first Disneyland opened in the US in 1955, has come a long way since. When Appu Ghar was opened in New Delhi by then prime minister Indira Gandhi, it offered rides till then unknown to most children and adults in the country. For the next decade, it remained synonymous with amusement parks in India till its competitor EsselWorld came into the picture with a park in Mumbai in 1989.
It was 10 years later that the Indian Association of Amusement Parks & Industries (IAAPI) was formed, which today has over 155 amusement parks and 150 family entertainment centres as members. Recently, the 18th edition of Amusement Expo 2018 (one of south-east Asia’s biggest expos for amusement and theme parks that showcases a comprehensive range of products and services) was organised by the IAAPI in Mumbai, which saw the participation of over 120 Indian exhibitors and 52 international ones from 16 countries. “The Indian amusement and theme park industry has been growing at a CAGR of more than 17.5%, with the annual revenue being approximately Rs 17 billion.
This is estimated to grow to at least Rs 40 billion by 2020,” says Shirish Deshpande, president, IAAPI, and CEO, EsselWorld. And as the well-travelled Indian gets more demanding, these parks have been adding new attractions every year. For instance, at Nicco Park in Kolkata, which is in its 27th year of operation, visitors have the option of around 40 rides, besides a water park. “In 2016, we also imported and installed an 80-feet-high Sky Diver Ride (drop-tower ride) to offer visitors an increased thrill element,” says Abhijit Dutta, managing director and CEO, Nicco Parks & Resorts.
Wonderla, another theme park that is located in Kochi and Bengaluru, recently opened another in Hyderabad. “We have also significantly upgraded offerings in our older parks, introducing state-of-the-art rollercoasters. We introduced a flying theatre in our Hyderabad park as well at a cost of Rsa 40 crore, our most expensive attraction yet,” says Arun Chittilappilly, managing director, Wonderla Holidays.
The last big theme park to be set up in India, however, was Adlabs Imagica, which was reportedly built at a cost of Rs 1,600 crore in 2013 in Khopoli off the Mumbai-Pune expressway.
Spread over 132 acres with a water park, snow park and a 287-room hotel (India’s first theme park hotel), Imagica is visited by 2,000 visitors today, as per Bakshi of Adlabs Imagica. “In 2016, we launched India’s largest themed snow park with 100% natural snow and a 50-foot dome,” he says. Not surprisingly, the business books are slowly moving away from red. “In FY17, we reported a revenue of Rs 239 crore compared to Rs 233 crore in FY16, with 2% growth,” Bakshi says. At Wonderla, too, the turnover in 2015-16 was Rs 22.3 lakh, which went up to Rs 27.6 lakh the following year.
The growth, however, is slow and the challenges aplenty. “EsselWorld me rahoonga main, ghar nahin jaaonga main” is a jingle many children from the 1980s and 90s would have heard while growing up, but a lot has changed between the time EsselWorld ran that TV commercial and today. “People ask me why we don’t have that commercial any more. How do I tell them that our earnings don’t allow us to run such expensive TV campaigns any more?” says Deshpande, CEO, EsselWorld. In the past two years, the park has registered a negative growth because of the service tax introduced in 2015 and later a high GST slab of 28% (currently revised at 18%). “A footfall drop of 30-35% was noticed after service tax was implemented in June 2015,” he says.
Setting up and running an amusement or theme park is not an easy proposition in India. Land acquisition is a serious problem. Dealing with the government and getting nearby villagers onboard are two major hassles that park owners face. Security, labour, ticket prices, maintenance, etc, are other challenges. “The amusement park industry, which is still in its budding phase in the country, requires significant investment. It requires at least Rs 700 crore for mega parks and Rs 100 crore for mid-sized parks… there is also high operational expenditure,” says Deshpande, adding, “And although it’s a highly seasonal business, the parks have to operate at full capacity even during off-season.”
Agrees Bakshi of Adlabs Entertainment: “This is a capital-intensive industry with a long gestation period and high capital risk.” The industry also rues that the tourism industry pays little attention to it. Most operators say the government should earmark open spaces for such parks while modelling smart cities. “Amusement parks contribute nearly 40% of the total recreation industry turnover, a key driver of growth among the services sector in India. Approximately 30-35% are outstation visitors and thus a major source of tourism,” says Deshpande of EsselWorld.
Globally, governments look at these projects as GDP drivers, as they drive international and domestic tourism in the country. “Some governments also provide tax subsidies, as well as interest subsidies or equity participation, which is unfortunately lacking in our case,” says Bakshi.
As per Aecom, a London-based planning and architecture firm, which studies theme parks, attendance at the world’s top theme park groups increased from 420 million visitors in 2015 to 438 million in 2016, but visits to the top 25 theme parks overall dipped by 1.1%, driven primarily by anomalies such as unsteady weather, political issues, decline in tourist footfall, etc, in Asia. “But India is at an exciting phase. Its growing middle class has disposable income. What has to be kept in mind, though, is primarily the location. It should offer good connectivity because, in India, traffic is a huge problem,” says Margreet Papamichael, regional director, buildings and places, Aecom.
Despite the roadblocks, new parks like Amaazia offer some hope. At the GST Council meeting held in January in New Delhi, the GST rate on an entry ticket to the amusement sector was reduced from 28% to 18%. Even though a great relief, the industry would like further reduction. “Most theme parks across the globe enjoy single-digit taxation. We, therefore, feel there is still scope for reducing the rate to 12%… we are working towards representing it to the GST Council,” says Bakshi of Adlabs Entertainment.
These operators believe Indians are ready to pay for quality. “The success of multiplexes in India shows that consumers are willing to spend money for a good experience,” says Movaliya of Rajgreen Group. “Most Indian families that travel abroad make sure they visit a theme park… and they spend almost $100 per head on tickets. If the consumers see value in the offering, the price point is not a barrier,” he says. The biggest name in the industry, Disneyland, opened its Shanghai arm at the cost of $50 billion in 2016. Could India be on its agenda?