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Asia's theme park hunger prompts AECOM to offer new service

Universal Studios Singapore registers first-ever fall in visitorship in 2016: report

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Mr Yoshii thinks that Sentosa and Universal Studios Singapore can tap into technology to provide visitors with new experiences.

Singapore

ASIA is getting more serious about having fun, and that's prompting multinational engineering and infrastructural services firm  AECOM to come up with a new service for aspiring theme park operators.

While having more operators crashing the party in Asia is an opportunity for  AECOM, the competition has, on the other hand, weighed on Singapore's Universal Studios which saw its first-ever dip in visitorship last year.

New York-listed  AECOM has launched in this quarter a new project management service aimed squarely at Asia's rapidly growing theme park sector. It hopes that its expertise in project and cost management, architecture, engineering and landscape design will help clients who are new to the mammoth task of building a theme park.

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"What we're doing is leveraging AECOM's capabilities to put together a programme where we can work with a developer that has an interest in theme parks but has never built one before," Chris Yoshii, AECOM's global director for economics and leisure, told The Business Times.

"It's not just about buildings and air-conditioning like a shopping centre. It's also about equipment, media, lights, special effects - all needing to work together to tell a story, taking people into different worlds," he added.

The Asia-Pacific may see an 8.8 per cent compound annual rise in visitor spending to theme parks, from US$12.9 billion in 2014 to US$19.7 billion in 2019, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). In particular, spending in China will grow the fastest at a 14.2 per cent compound annual increase, from 2014's US$3 billion to 2019's US$5.9 billion.

Already, Walt Disney Company's US$5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort is close to breaking even since it opened last June, its chief executive officer Bob Iger said.

Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group aims to build 15 theme parks across China by 2020.

"In China we believe there are around 100 theme park projects being planned or under construction," said Mr Yoshii. At least 10 will be medium to large-scale parks that need comprehensive services.

As new theme parks pop up across the region, existing ones will have to refresh their attractions to continue to attract visitors, said Mr Yoshii.

This comes as the latest Theme and Museum Index Report showed that Universal Studios Singapore (USS) saw its first-ever fall in visitorship in 2016 since it opened in 2010.

The survey, jointly conducted by  AECOM and international non-profit Themed Entertainment Association, noted that 4.1 million visitors entered USS, a 2.4 per cent fall in visitorship in 2016 compared to 2015. This puts it as the 11th most visited theme park in the Asia-Pacific.

Statistics for the survey are either furnished by the operators themselves, or sourced by  AECOM via other channels. For USS, numbers were compiled by  AECOM.

When approached, a spokesman for Resorts World Sentosa (RWS), where USS is located, only said that the park saw its 25 millionth visitor in January this year, while more than 20 million visit RWS each year.

USS' fall in visitorship was still slightly better than the overall fall across the region's top 20 most visited parks. Some 127.3 million visited these parks last year, a 2.8 per cent fall from 2015. Hong Kong's Ocean Park was the worst-performing park with a 18.8 per cent fall to just under six million visitors.

Mr Yoshii said the fall in visitorship in Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau was due to several factors, with the opening of Shanghai's Disneyland as one of them. As such, he said that last week's announcement to redevelop Sentosa, the island where USS is located, can be a chance for USS and the island as a whole to move ahead of competition.

While the tender for the redevelopment is not out yet, Mr Yoshii said that  AECOM, which helped develop RWS, is "very interested" in Sentosa's future plans. "We, of course, would be very supportive of any future opportunities there; Sentosa is a very unique area compared to others in Asia."

Mr Yoshii thinks that Sentosa and USS can tap into technology to provide visitors with new experiences. For example, virtual or augmented reality can be used to enthral visitors; visitors should be able to share these experiences on social media. "That's not something seen in traditional attractions, where you're entertaining a person in the moment. You don't really think of them sharing their experiences, the attractions aren't designed that way."

Alicia Seah, director of marketing communications at travel agency Dynasty Travel, agreed that it may be a good time to relook into what USS can offer, even as its visitorship falls. "If you look at Universal Studios in Osaka, they recently added a Harry Potter park and attendance increased. So it's not about the scarcity of space for USS - there must always be something new," she noted.

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