Six Flags Inc., one of the world’s largest theme park operators with 21 properties in North America, is planning to open a theme park in a place where no theme park has gone before: Nigeria.
Six Flags officials hope to open a 250-acre park by 2013 in Calabar, a historic city in Cross River state on Nigeria’s southeastern border.
Six Flags already owns two international theme parks, one in Montreal and the other in Mexico City. But Nigeria, which has no large-scale theme parks, is a new frontier.
“We saw Nigeria, a country with a population of more than 140 million people, a rapidly growing middle class and relatively few theme-park options, as a good emerging market to expand Six Flags’ global brand,” said Andrew Schleimer, executive vice president of strategic development and in-park services for Six Flags.
Six Flags filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June. Its chairman, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, hired Mark Shapiro as chief executive officer in 2005 to help return the New York company to profitability.
“Shapiro is one of the brightest guys in the industry,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consulting firm in Cincinnati. “Under his leadership, the company has been on the correct reconfiguration path.”
However, Mr. Speigel has some doubts about the company’s Nigerian venture. “I’m not sure if this announcement brings credibility to Six Flags’ table,” he said.
Some analysts say Six Flags’ plan to build a park in Nigeria may be motivated by market saturation in the places where it operates, suggesting that the company wants to test an untapped market.
“There are already a number of theme parks in parts of Asia, Europe, Australia and parts of the Middle East,” Mr. Speigel said.
“It’s a worthy cause for Six Flags to spread this type of entertainment, but [Nigeria] is a tough place to do business given the role corruption and government interference play there,” he said. “Some parts of the country are having trouble clothing its people. I have to question whether Nigeria is ready for an attraction of this nature.”
Nigeria derives about 95 percent of its foreign exchange earnings and 80 percent of its budget revenues from oil production, according to data collected by the CIA. That crucial revenue stream has been threatened by a spate of kidnappings of foreign oil workers by militant groups.
More than 500 people have been kidnapped in Nigeria so far this year, up nearly 70 percent from 2008. Several foreign companies, including Willbros Group Inc., a U.S. oil services contractor, have withdrawn from Nigeria.
Six Flags and Cross River state reached the agreement as another promising business partnership goes awry.
Virgin Nigeria, launched in 2005, recently announced that it was changing its name to Nigerian Eagle Airlines, deepening its fractured relationship with British founder Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. Hopes were high for Virgin Nigeria to establish itself as a safe and credible flagship carrier, but Virgin Atlantic officials have told Reuters that they were looking to sell the company’s 49 percent stake in the Nigerian airline, for which it paid about $25 million.
Although development of a Nigerian theme park is still in the early stages, Six Flags officials expressed confidence about the project. “We have certainly done our due diligence,” Mr. Schleimer said.
“The first phase of this project is designed to get to know the partners, the lay of the land and to conceptualize the look and feel of the project. The first phase is a fact-finding mission for both parties.
“We are aware of pockets of civil unrest in the country, mainly in the north. So far, we are comfortable with the stability of the region that we are working in,” he said.
Once the initial planning phase is complete, Six Flags and the Cross River government will collaborate on the design, construction and management of the park. Construction labor is expected to come from the local population, which will spur economic growth, said Mr. Schleimer, adding that financing probably will be the result of a public-private partnership in which the government pays a portion of the cost. Six Flags would not divulge details of its financing plan.
Despite the global economic downturn, attendance held steady last year at North America’s top 20 theme parks, according to a 2008 report by the Themed Entertainment Association.
Abroad, attendance for the top 20 European parks rose 1 percent from 2007 to 2008. Six Flags’ Mexico City park was No. 1 in the Latin America market even though it recorded a half-percentage-point drop in attendance.