Feature - A Legend Is Born - May 2018

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Could new Jeju Shinhwa World integrated resort signal an attractions boom in South Korea? 

by Michael Switow

Hong Kong-listed Landing International Development used to manufacture LED light bulbs. But that was before Yang Zhihui, one of China’s top real estate developers, acquired the company in a reverse takeover five years ago. A native of Anhui Province, Yang needed a vehicle to venture overseas. He was also ready to build on his property experience with a move into the business of entertainment and attractions. Today, the former lightbulb-maker is the owner-operator of a sparkling new integrated resort in the south of South Korea. Its share price has risen five-fold since the acquisition, and the company has its sights set on more leisure entertainment investments.

Landing has invested US$1.5 billion in Jeju Shinhwa World to date, and by the time the 250-hectare project is finished in two years, total investment will rise by a billion more. The resort launched late last year with a theme park, two hotels, convention center, restaurants, duty-free shopping, service apartments, and condominiums. An international casino (for foreign visitors only) and K-pop-inspired cafe opened in February. A water park and third hotel are also debuting this year. By early 2020, guests will be able to stay at a Four Seasons and immerse themselves in Lionsgate Movie World, the country’s first international theme park.

“The demand for leisure and entertainment facilities in Asia is on the rise, thanks to economic growth and higher disposable incomes,” says Yang, explaining why he’s optimistic about integrated resorts. “The Asian market can accommodate more industry participants (in this area).”

The Tiger Roars

Jeju Shinhwa World’s launch also takes place against the backdrop of a strong South Korean economy and thriving attractions sector. South Korea’s economy—Asia’s fourth largest after China, Japan, and India—grew 3.1 percent in 2017, its fastest pace since 2014, in part due to growing consumer spending. The Bank of Korea projects a similar rise this year, despite political tensions and a mild economic contraction in the fourth quarter of last year.

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Jeju Shinhwa Theme Park offers more than 15 rides and attractions, and is divided into three themed zones centered on animated films and TV series. (Credit: Landing International Development Ltd.)

Five of Asia’s most popular attractions—Lotte World, Everland, Caribbean Bay, Ocean World, and the National Museum of Korea—are located in South Korea, according to TEA/AECOM 2016 Theme Index and Museum Index: The Global Attractions Attendance Report. Lotte World and Everland rank 14th and 16th in the list of top theme parks, attracting 8.1 million and 7.2 million guests a year, respectively. Caribbean Bay and Ocean World place sixth and eighth, respectively, in the survey of water parks, while the National Museum of Korea is the globe’s 19th most popular museum, with nearly 3.4 million visitors a year.

In the port city of Busan, South Korea, a team of investors led by Lotte and GS Retail are planning a US$333 million theme park complex that is touted to be more than twice the size of the nation’s flagship parks. Osiria, as the park is known, will have more than 30 rides, plus an aquarium, luge tracks, hotels, shopping centers, and a science museum. Construction began in January, and the Busan Urban Development Corp. says the park will open before the end of next year.

“If you look at Asia today, everyone talks about consumer spending,” reflects Landing Group Chief Financial Officer David Hoon. “The middle class in China is growing every year by big numbers, and you will see that Koreans, in the last few years, have been growing in affluence, too. When Asians become richer, they spend; they want better quality holidays. The older generation may have been happy to come to Jeju and stay in a small little boutique hotel, but increasingly, the younger generation, with the kind of spending power they have, there’s a lot of demand for premium hotels, premium food and beverage (F&B), and premium leisure entertainment facilities. We noticed there was a shortage of supply in this aspect.”

‘The Hawaii of Korea’

Jeju Island, billed as the “Hawaii of Korea,” sits in the far south of the country, some 50 miles off the mainland. Its coastlines, carved by the area’s volcanic past, are stunning. The tint of the island’s craters change with the seasons, while its lava tubes, said to be the finest system in the world, led the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to create a biosphere reserve and name three places on the island as World Heritage sites. 

Despite a population of less than 700,000 people, Jeju received nearly 15 million visitors last year. Many people actually visit the island several times a year to hike and enjoy the natural scenery during different seasons. There’s not a single factory on the island. Jeju’s chilly waters are pristine, and its seafood delicious. Korean Air serves bottled Jeju water, while the climate has proved just right for growing tea and tangerines.

When they’re not exploring Mount Hallasan or watching the sun rise over the Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone, visitors can choose between more than 100 museums and live entertainment performances. There are serious museums—like one dedicated to the Haenyeo, traditional female divers who famously harvest shellfish without diving equipment—and others that are quirkier, like the three teddy bear museums. Innisfree, a Korean cosmetics brand that uses natural Jeju ingredients, is a popular stop for women on the tourist trail.

For Yang, Jeju Island was a natural site for Landing’s first major attractions project. “As a tourist, since my first visit to the island, I have been mesmerized by Jeju’s natural scenery and the friendly locals,” he recalls. “As a businessman, I can envision Jeju’s endless tourism potential, particularly given its naturally gifted location at the center of Northeast Asia.” 

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Jeju Shinhwa World Landing Casino, located in Jeju Shinhwa World Marriott Resort, opened on Feb. 25, 2018. During the opening event, Yang Zhihui, chairman and executive director of Landing International, placed his first bet. (Credit: Landing International Development Ltd.)

Investment Criteria

Jeju checks all the boxes when it comes to Landing’s investment criteria. One, it has an established tourist market. Two, the infrastructure—roads, airport, flight connectivity—is already in place. Three, it’s close to key markets—Seoul is just an hour flight away; Shanghai, an hour and a half; Tokyo, about two and a half. Four, the local market’s size and potential is substantial. Five, it’s easy to recruit talent, as the local universities offer an abundance of hospitality and tourism courses.

“Besides planning and building this resort, I do not need to worry about marketing Jeju as a tourist destination, unlike someplace like, say, Saipan, where you would really have to explain and build the connectivity, in addition to promoting your own resort,” explains Hoon, a former banker who has been involved with the Jeju Shinhwa World project from its inception. 

“Our belief is if you want to build a resort of this scale, you cannot just depend on foreigners. Not for a $1.52 billion investment. If you want the resort to be sustainable, it needs to feed on a very large domestic market,” he adds.

Currently, the vast majority of visitors to Jeju, more than 90 percent, are Korean. The number of direct international flights is on the rise, though, particularly to nearby China and Japan, and Landing is promoting Jeju Shinhwa World in these markets, as well as Southeast Asia. The number of visitors from China, which dropped to a trickle in 2017, should jump once diplomatic tensions between the countries ease.

While Jeju has just launched, Landing is actively looking to replicate the integrated resort model in other parts of Asia. In addition to the above criteria, it adds two more: One, it wants to build in a developing country like the Philippines or Vietnam, not “mature markets like Singapore or Malaysia”; two, the local population should be “growing in affluence,” which then translates into demand for better tourist attractions. Wherever it invests, Landing wants to be viewed as part of the local community. “We don’t like to be called a foreign investor,” Hoon says.

Business Strategy

“Shinhwa” is the Korean word for myth or legend. While Landing is partnering with established intellectual properties for different parts of the resort, it doesn’t see any one section as being the linchpin. Instead, Landing is positioning Jeju Shinhwa World as a resort with something for everyone. 

The Shinhwa Theme Park primarily targets Koreans, particularly families with young children up to age 15. Lionsgate Movie World is for teenagers, young adults, and older folks, too. YG Republique caters to people who love K-pop (a South Korean music genre known for its use of audiovisual elements) and K-culture (enthusiasts of South Korean entertainment, TV dramas and movies), Koreans and foreigners alike. The water park is a year-round facility for all ages. By law, the casino—the largest on the island with 155 gaming tables and nearly 240 slots and electronic table games—is strictly for foreign visitors, as is the extensive duty-free shopping area. Upscale restaurants, a destination spa, and five-star accommodation target the well-heeled, regardless of nationality. 

“The way we look at it, whether you are a golfer, a foodie, or a mountain climber, as you get affluent, at the end of the day, you want to come back to a nice resort like this to chill out and relax,” Hoon says. “And for the families, the young kids who don’t go to the mountains or the golf course, we have the theme park. We want them to remember Jeju Shinhwa World, not an individual piece of it.” 

To this end, several parts of the integrated resort are branded with the “Shinhwa” name, including the theme park, water park, condos, and one of the resort hotels. Landing’s business model is to operate, as well as develop, which necessitates, company officials say, extending the Shinhwa brand.

Another hotel, the Landing Resort, is named after the company, while the others have international brands behind them—Marriott and the Four Seasons. Together with the Somerset service apartments, there are more than 2,200 rooms; company officials are targeting 85-90 percent occupancy rate.

At the same time, Landing is teaming with hugely popular cultural icons. For the theme park, it’s leveraging the colorful characters of TUBAn, a leading Korean animation studio and toy maker that has helped transform a viewing landscape formerly dominated by Western cartoons; the Shinhwa Theme Park is TUBAn’s first venture into the world of attractions. YG Republique was designed in partnership with the “King of K-pop,” a 29-year-old superstar who goes by the name G-Dragon. And then there’s Lionsgate, whose movies have topped the charts in Korea, just as they have elsewhere.

Over the long term, Landing expects revenue from the casino and its other attractions to account for equal shares of the business. Visitors are expected to spend four days, three nights, on average, at the integrated resort, with an average spend of US$1,500-2,000 per person. In the short term, property sales from condominiums and villas will also be an important stream.
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FROM LEFT: K-Pop artist G-Dragon; Yang Hyun-Suk, president of YG Entertainment; Yang Zhihui, chairman and executive director of Landing International; and Noh Hee-young, chairman of YG Foods, at the opening ceremony of Untitled, 2017 (Credit: Landing International Development Ltd.)

Larva for the Children

As you approach the Shinhwa Theme Park, the colorful characters of TUBAn are prominently displayed above the park’s name. In the center of the masthead, there are two larvae characters named Red and Yellow from the TV series “Larva” that The Korea Times describes as “an edgier version of Tom and Jerry.” Their shows are already seen in more than 40 countries, and on Disney’s Latin America broadcasts, even though the characters debuted just seven years ago. To the right of the larvae are the “Rotary Park” heroes (and rock band): Egg Man, Drunken Bear, Yoyo Cat, and the merman Dr. Giselle. Also featured, the animals of “Oscar’s Oasis” and “Cafe Wingcle” (whose show inspired a F&B outlet in the park).

There are three themed zones in the park—Larva’s Adventure Village, Oscar’s New World, and Rotary Park—and more than 15 rides and attractions, several of which make innovative use of cutting-edge technology. 

At the top of the list is the “Rotary Park 4-D Theater.” Created by France’s CL Corp., the theater seats 130 people under a 20-meter-wide dome, making it the world’s biggest 4-D dome theater. As the original animation by TUBAn begins, theatergoers’ seats automatically recline 40 degrees. The screen above surpasses a viewer’s field of vision, providing the sensation of staring up into the stars. There are also places for guests in wheelchairs to sit safely and still feel the effects.

Two other interactive attractions were developed by Canada’s Triotech. While visitors are required to “shoot” in each one, they won’t find any toy guns. Instead, guests point and flick a yellow “Larva”-themed device at a succession of screens in the four-seat, 3-D dark ride called “Larva’s Space Adventure.” Their goal is to help Red and Yellow return to Earth after an ill-fated experiment with fireworks. Each rider’s score is registered to create a competitive dynamic. Similarly in “Finding Larva,” two teams of six walk from one historical scene to another—from Jeju’s mythical creation by Grandmother Seolmundae to the moon landing—and in each room, use a device or their hands to interact with the screen and score points.

“Everland and Lotte are institutions that Korean families and kids grew up with,” says Jagdesh Kumar, Landing’s head of attractions. “For us, being an infant, we need to have new rides to become an institution, so when the kids come in, they get that memorable experience, and we can become their institution for many years to come.” 

While Landing positions the theme parks for kids, adults entering “Oscar’s V World” will not be disappointed. Inside, there are five gated virtual reality rides. For a small additional fee (less than US$5 for one, US$12 for three), guests can man a robot fighting to save a city, or ride a breathtaking virtual roller coaster (the “circle simulator”). 

K-Culture

YG Republique is intended for lovers of all things Korean. The centerpiece is a coffee house called Untitled, 2017 but unofficially known as GD Cafe. The official name is a take on a hit song by artist G-Dragon.

The cafe has created a real buzz in Korea because G-Dragon played an active role in its planning, from selecting the cacao beans to the interior design. His artwork hangs on the walls. The cafe’s launch in February was also G-Dragon’s last public appearance before enlisting in the South Korean military for his mandatory national service.

In addition to GD Cafe, YG Republique boasts several top restaurants, including one specializing in Korean black pork barbecue, as well as retail and a bowling bar that Landing says will add “more vibrancy” to Jeju’s nighttime scene.

Shinhwa Water Park

At press time, Landing was still keeping details about the water park close to its chest. However, the year-round park is expected to boast several superlatives: largest water park in Jeju (13,000 square meters), one ride that will be the first of its kind in Asia, another ride and pool that will be the first of their kinds in Korea. It has three zones—two outside and one indoors—and a capacity of 4,000 visitors. In total, there will be 12 pools and half a dozen rides, as well as playgrounds for children and toddlers, and cabanas for those desiring greater privacy. The water park is scheduled to open in summer 2018.
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Larva’s Adventure Village brings the TV series “Larva” to life with themed rides, shows, and dining. Guests can meet and take photos with “Larva” characters Red and Yellow. (Credit: Landing International Development Ltd.)

Korea’s First Hollywood Theme Park

The last section of Jeju Shinhwa World to open is also the most hotly anticipated. Lionsgate Movie World, the Hollywood studio’s first outdoor theme park, will span 40 acres and feature more than 20 rides, attractions, and experiences based on six blockbuster intellectual properties: “The Hunger Games,” “The Twilight Saga,” “The Divergent Series,” “Now You See Me,” “The Cabin in the Woods,” and “Saw.” 

“We’re really excited about the level of immersion that fans are going to be able to experience for each of the IPs that are going into the park,” says Jenefer Brown, Lionsgate senior vice president for global live and location-based entertainment. “When you step into an area, you are going to feel like everything you’re touching, seeing, smelling, and hearing is of that world. For example, in ‘The Hunger Games’ area, it will feel like you have stepped into Panem (the mythical country where the story is set), and for the first time, because we have the space to do it, we’re going to be able to build out the Capitol and District 12, and an area that is like District 13, so fans will really get the full experience of that world. And we’re able to do that, not just with ‘The Hunger Games,’ but with each of the IPs we’re programming in the park.”

Not only will park employees be dressed as “The Hunger Games” characters, visitors will also have a chance to don the outlandish wigs, makeup, and dresses of Effie Trinket, and try on other Cinna-inspired outfits from Lionsgate’s Capitol Couture brand (profiled online at 74th.capitolcouture.pn), like the “white clergy shirt and dark sanguine button-up vest” of President Coriolanus Snow.

To ensure authenticity of the themed zones, Lionsgate says it’s working closely with “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer, as well as Suzanne Collins, who wrote “The Hunger Games” trilogy. The “Twilight” area will have a dueling coaster with immersive media moments that “take a new twist to the traditional twister,” just one of several unique attractions, according to Brown.
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Costumed performers entertain guests with an adventure fantasy show at the Central Stage in the Rotary Park zone of the park. (Credit: Michael Switow.)

For those not familiar with “The Cabin in the Woods” and “Saw,” they are horror films, the latter being one of the most successful horror franchises in history, with eight films grossing nearly a billion dollars. Together, they will form a horror zone unique to Lionsgate’s Jeju property, which is particularly appropriate for a country infatuated with the genre. Lionsgate also expects it to be the world’s first large-scale, year-round horror theme park zone.

Lionsgate Movie World is being built on a forested plot of land, with hills facing the rides. Many of the trees will remain in place to ensure the landscape is reminiscent of the films.

“Jeju is already a very beautiful tourist spot, but it’s also the best-kept secret,” says Landing’s Hoon. “It’s a beautiful island with fresh air and beautiful water, but many people don’t know where it is. (Our integrated resort) will put Jeju on the international tourism map, in terms of attracting a more diverse group of visitors from all over Asia, and even outside Asia, as well.”


Michael Switow is a Singapore-based writer who covers the Asia-Pacific attractions industry for Funworld.