Roaring Into the Year of the Tiger
After a two-year pandemic pause, the attractions industry in Vietnam appears set to boom again. New attractions are opening, big projects are in the pipeline, and deals are being made.
Vietnamese consumers are demonstrating a strong appetite to venture out again, and operators are cautiously optimistic about international arrivals picking up as borders reopen.
Perhaps nowhere is this bullish approach more prevalent than within Sun Group, which has more than $1 billion worth of new entertainment products in the pipeline. Its top competitors—Vinpearl and a new entrant, Novaland—are investing in new attractions, as well.
“Sun Group, Vingroup, and Novaland are plowing full speed ahead,” observes Anna Danau, Hospitality Intelligence managing director, who has been closely tracking Vietnam’s attractions landscape since moving to the country seven years ago. “But medium-sized and smaller companies are going to be cautious because they suffered quite a bit financially over the past couple years.”
Taylor Jeffs, president and chief creative officer at Legacy Entertainment, says his company has been working on multiple projects in the country.
“As the world’s borders reopen, Vietnam’s accessibility, affordability, and dynamic new offerings will make it a more popular destination than ever before,” he adds.
Year of the Roaring Tiger
For much of 2021, parts of Vietnam were under strict lockdown. The military was even called upon to deliver food and aid to households, as restrictions on people’s movements were tightened. As the number of COVID-19 cases declined, social distancing restrictions were eased in January.
“We basically had nine months of no operation at all. The industry in Vietnam was very badly affected,” says Sun World Chief Operating Officer Brad Loxley. “But just looking at the numbers we did in the parks for Lunar New Year, they were very, very good. So, there’s definitely pent-up demand for entertainment products domestically, let alone the demand from international visitors when they return.”
At Sun World BaDen Mountain, located about two hours northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, nearly 600,000 people visited during the Tet Lunar New Year holidays in February; as many as 85,000 people a day took cable cars to the BaDen summit to visit pagodas, see Asia’s tallest bronze Buddha statue, watch a domed cinema show, and walk in the flowery gardens. Other Sun World parks, as well as attractions run by its competitors, enjoyed strong visitor numbers during this period as well, fueling the sense of optimism.
“As we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, Vietnam’s attractions industry is set to skyrocket. We are seeing strong demand. During the Tet lunar holidays, we achieved our monthly revenue in just four days,” adds a member of Vinpearl’s management team. “People’s expectations have shifted, though. Visitors want to be safe when they visit a park, but they don’t want to be surrounded with disinfectant. Many guests would like to see hotspots on a map in order to avoid the busiest places in the park.”
Vinpearl—which is owned by one of Vietnam’s largest property developers, the Vingroup—owns and operates attractions in Hanoi, Hoi An, Nha Trang, and Phú Quốc, where the much-anticipated Sea Shell Aquarium has recently opened. The 300,000-square-foot facility, shaped like a giant turtle, is one of the world’s largest marine parks. The signature attraction is the sea’s biggest fish, the whale shark.
“Our primary goal has been to create a signature icon that will capture the attention of potential visitors from all around the globe,” Jeffs says. Legacy Entertainment designed the park in collaboration with Australia’s Advanced Aquarium Technologies.
Turtles are a central element of Vietnam’s mythology. They signify longevity, strength, and intelligence, while a giant turtle is said to have played a key role in the story of the nation’s 15th century independence struggle from China.
“The Sea Shell is the first truly world-class aquarium on the Indochinese Peninsula. It is symbolic of the rising standard of animal care that we have all been advocating for, as well as the awakening of an all-new destination entertainment market with limitless promise,” Jeffs adds.
Legacy Entertainment is already hard at work on another major theme park and water park destination in Vietnam.
“The economic conditions of a market like Vietnam push us to work a bit differently, but ultimately, the result is budget-conscious designs and decisions that are every bit as exciting as their big-budget counterparts,” he explains. “Much like our work in Indonesia, these new projects will be case studies in the idea that bigger isn’t necessarily better.”
Fifteen years after its launch, Sun Group is expanding its attractions throughout the country.
In the beachside town of Sầm Sơn, about three hours south of Hanoi, on an 82-hectare plot of land, Sun Group is building a theme park and water park, with nearly 50 attractions between them, as well as a retail, dining, and entertainment area called Sầm Sơn Riverwalk. Legendary Lands and Aqua Legends will be based on the legends of the land, sky, mountains, and water of the local Mường culture.
The parks are currently scheduled to open in April 2023.
Further north, and not too far from Sun Group’s properties in the Ha Long Bay area of Quảng Ninh province, Sun Group is developing a Japanese-style onsen resort, set against a stunning natural landscape of limestone mountain. Yoko Park, which Loxley describes as “like a traditional onsen, plus a Japanese cultural park and water park,” will open at the end of next year and include a 616-room Holiday Inn Resort.
Sun Group is best known for its breathtaking cable car ascents, several of which have set Guinness World Records. The company currently operates four funiculars and 12 cable cars, with more on the way.
“Their constant purchase of cable cars is pretty amazing,” observes Hospitality Intelligence’s Danau, “but what I think is really interesting is that Sun Group finds these unique locations, which you think ‘no one’s going to go there,’ but they are very successful and really resonate with people.”
Perhaps the biggest developments of all, though, are in Sun Group’s first, and most popular, destination, Ba Na Hills. Visitors take a 17-minute cable car ride up nearly 4,500 feet—with spectacular views of the forest canopy and waterfalls below—to a French-themed village, complete with a town square, medieval church, and parapet walls.
There are currently six cable cars to Sun World Ba Na Hills; a seventh Doppelmayr, ascending from the other side of the mountain, is under construction. When it opens in late 2023, the size of this central highlands resort—which offers a welcome respite from Vietnam’s hot, muggy summers—will double.
Several other Ba Na projects, delayed by the pandemic, are back on track. An ITEC-designed castle with a Kraftwerk 4D cinema and Simworx immersive tunnel opened in April, as did Medieval Fair, an outdoor Midway Games and rides complex.
There is only one place to stay in Ba Na Hills at the moment—most visitors are day-trippers—but Sun Hospitality Group has signed a deal with IHG Hotels & Resorts to open three hotels, with nearly 2,100 rooms, in 2026.
Farther south, on Phú Quốc, Sun Group launched Vietnam’s first wooden roller coaster this year, “Roaring Timbers,” in Sun World Hon Thom Nature Park.
Manufactured by Great Coasters International, the coaster’s trains climb more than 100 feet before reaching speeds of nearly 50 miles per hour on a track that extends half a mile. Before the end of the year, a signature multimedia show by France’s ECA2 is set to debut in the park.
Multimedia shows are quickly becoming a staple of Vinpearl’s portfolio, too. The $12 million nightly fountain and stage show, “Once: An Enchanted Storybook Spectacular,” in VinWonders Phú Quốc was developed by New Jersey’s Quantum Creative Studios, while the “Tata Show” in Nha Trang utilizes 14 advanced 3D-mapping projectors and has a cast of 150 multinational actors.
Nha Trang is also the site of a fully transparent submarine attraction. Launched in April, the Vinpearl Submarine Nha Trang’s hull is made entirely of acrylic. Developed by Triton Submarines, the vehicle emits no carbon, is practically silent, and has been likened to a mobile aquarium.
Not every new attraction needs to be record-setting or high-tech to be successful. Picturesque views are often more popular among the domestic audience than thrilling rides.
“There are signs that [educational tours] and ecotourism are gaining ground among locals, as well as international travelers,” Danau notes, adding that there could be opportunities for zip lines and ropes courses in the future. “It’s definitely an interesting space to watch.”
- Michael Switow is a Singapore-based writer who covers the Asia-Pacific attractions industry for Funworld.