Alan Mahony’s new water theme park promises to help turn Pattaya’s image on its head
By Steve Finch Photography by Brent Lewin
Not long ago, establishing a family-oriented theme park on the outskirts of Pattaya would have been a bit like building a petting zoo at the gates of Guantanamo Bay. How times have changed.
Pattaya and its environs will see three large water parks open next year, one of which is branded by the Cartoon Network and another, Ramayana Waterpark, which is set to be the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia.
“They are very strongly looking at family entertainment, they are trying to rebrand,” Alan Mahony, the managing director of Ramayana, says of Pattaya’s recent efforts to rehabilitate its less than wholesome image.
Ninety minutes from central Bangkok and a short drive from central Pattaya, the $41.5m Ramayana is being built next to a winery, has hired Saatchi & Saatchi to do its marketing and will set ticket prices at 900 baht ($29) for adults.
“We’re going for the very top of the market, the type of Thais that shop at Siam Paragon, Bangkok’s designer mega-mall, along with the rising number of upper-class Russian families, Chinese and well-heeled Western clientele,” says Mahony.
The fact that a theme park project in Pattaya managed to tempt Mahony at all is testament to the city’s rising star quality.
Responsible for overseeing the transformation of the iconic Water Cube in Beijing from the 2008 Olympic swimming venue to a state-of-the-art water park, Australian Mahony has established himself as the water theme park king of Asia over the past 16 years, working on increasingly large projects in Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and, most recently, China.
Whatever reservations he had about relocating from Beijing to Pattaya were shed after a few exploratory visits to the city of half a million people. He has now committed to spending the next decade as operator of Ramayana once it opens sometime around August next year.
And he’s not the only one who has been drawn to what has long been considered Thailand’s sleaze city.
In recent years, Pattaya has overtaken Phuket as the most-visited destination in the country. The national tourism authority estimates 7.8 million people will make the trip there this year, a rise of up to 10% on 2011 and more than the total number of tourists to Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos combined.
The result is an increasing shortage of land near the beach, a proliferation of projects on the city outskirts and a sharp rise in land and property prices. According to real-estate agents in Pattaya, it is currently offering the same volume of residential space as Jakarta.
Part of this boom is being led by Russians, who already top a million visitors a year, and then there is the rapidly rising flood of Chinese tourists, who are
typically bussed in and out as part of whirlwind tour groups that spend no longer than three or four days in Thailand.
Mahony says Ramayana Waterpark aims for foreign visitors to make up 50% of its first-year target of 750,000 visitors, with Thais making up the rest.
“We can’t just concentrate on [foreign] tourism… we have to concentrate on the Bangkok market too.”
He says market research shows that building outside of Bangkok is key: Just far enough away so the drive feels like a day trip, but not so far it turns into a full-blown holiday.
Another vital component of this product mix is what the park has to offer to entice visitors initially and then ensure they return, says Mahony.
As such, Ramayana is building a wave pool, where people can learn to surf, and a host of waterslides imported from Canada, alongside restaurants and entertainment. Plus, he says they are leaving a certain amount of land fallow so they can add new attractions roughly every two years.
After the initial launch period, Ramayana will also be open at night, he says, as the park attempts to stake its claim to become all-conquering, not only in increasingly competitive, polished Pattaya, but also in Thailand and the wider region.
“It’s the first real, international standard water theme park [in the country],” says Mahony. “It is going to help transform Pattaya.”