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In Surprise Sell-Off, Wanda Turns Over Its Theme Parks to Sunac in $9.3 Billion Deal

In a retreat from its ambitions for location-based entertainment, Dalian Wanda Group is selling its theme parks to fellow real-estate developer Sunac China for $9.3 billion (RMB63.2 billion).

Wanda will offload 13 of its tourism projects and 76 hotels to Sunac in a combination of asset transfers and sales. According to a statement Monday on Wanda’s website, the deal includes $4.4 billion worth of tourism projects located across China, including in the cities of Qingdao, Guangzhou, Harbin, Chengdu, Kunming and Guilin. Wanda is transferring a 91% stake in those projects to Sunac, which will become responsible for the loans on those projects.

In the second phase of the deal, Sunac will pay $4.9 billion to acquire 76 hotels located in cities such as Beijing and Wuhan.

The brands, development plans, designs and operations of the properties will remain unchanged after the transaction, which is to be formalized July 31, Wanda said. The statement added that the two companies would also explore strategic partnerships in areas including film.

The deal immediately raised eyebrows because of its scale – it is said to be the second-biggest real-estate deal in China – and cast a spotlight on the finances of both Wanda and Sunac.

Wanda is a massive conglomerate that currently includes two stock-market-listed subsidiaries. It is ultimately controlled by Dalian Wanda, a privately owned holding company with finances and control structures that are not easily open to public scrutiny. (After Monday’s announcement, the share price of Wanda Hotel Development, which is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, shot up by 47%.) While group chairman Wang Jianlin is often described as China’s richest man, it has often been rumored that the group has gargantuan levels of debt.

That perspective appeared to be confirmed last month when Chinese financial regulators asked state-owned banks to check the status of loans made to four highly acquisitive conglomerates, including Wanda and Fosun. No irregularities have been found.

In an interview with Chinese business news outlet Caixin, chairman Wang said the disposal of theme parks and hotels would help his company operate on an asset-light basis and develop a business model that relied on software and branding.

Wang said that Wanda had been adjusting its business strategy to concentrate on developing innovative and asset-light businesses, such as film and television, sports, tourism, children’s entertainment, Internet and finance. He said the group would be able to clear all its debts within three years.

“Wanda Commercial is not shouldering a lot of debts, but through this asset transfer [with Sunac], the company’s debt ratio will be greatly reduced,” Wang told Caixin. “The proceeds from the sale will be used to pay off loans. Wanda Commercial will pay off all bank loans by the end of this year.”

Still, the sell-off of Wanda’s theme parks represents a significant comedown for Wang, who last year boasted that a “wolf pack” of Wanda parks would overtake Shanghai Disney, which he suggested was overpriced. Last August, Wanda signed a $9.3-billion co-development deal to build a sports-themed park in the city of Jinan, to include a 10,000-seat stadium, a mall, hotels, and other facilities. But cracks appeared in Wanda’s ambitions when the company temporarily closed its indoor theme park in Wuhan after less than two years of operation.

Sunac China suspended trading on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Monday. Sunac has been making aggressive deals and investments recently, including a 15-billion RMB ($2.2-billion) investment in cash-strapped media and tech company LeEco in January. Sunac’s s chairman, Sun Hongbin, was last week nominated to join the board of LeEco’s listed arm Leshi Internet Information & Technology.

Sun insisted that the company was financially healthy. He told Caixin that the acquisition from Wanda was made with capital from the group. He said that as of June 30, Sunac China had more than 90 billion RMB ($13.2 billion) cash and was expecting an annual turnover of more than 300 billion RMB ($44 billion).

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