Fisherman's Wharf gamble pays off - for Macau developers, at least

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 March, 2009, 12:00am

Fisherman's Wharf was supposed to be Macau's answer to Hong Kong Disneyland. And indeed the two theme parks share a number of unplanned commonalities.

Both have seen fewer visitors than originally anticipated, and both have struggled to emulate the pulling power of Macau's massive casino resorts, such as the Venetian.

But one important difference emerged on news that the Wharf's developer, Macau legislator David Chow Kam-fai, is negotiating to buy back about US$340 million in convertible bonds from foreign investors, including Texas Pacific Group (TPG) and Och Ziff, at about 50 US cents on the dollar.

Should the deal be completed, the original developers - Mr Chow and Stanley Ho Hung-sun - would most likely have both recouped their share of the park's initial HK$2 billion investment.

The Hong Kong government and Walt Disney can only envy such a favourable outcome for their HK$30 billion Lantau foray.

Macau Fisherman's Wharf broke ground in 2001 on an 111,500 square metre waterfront site between the ferry terminal and what is now the Sands Macao.

Original plans called for a family-oriented theme park with a 40-metre artificial volcano, an amphitheatre inspired by the Roman Colosseum, a replica Ming Dynasty palace and an Arabian children's fort.

Significantly, they did not include a casino.

In that sense, it was a departure for both Mr Ho, the casino magnate, and Mr Chow, a longtime operator of VIP junkets and owner of the Macau Landmark hotel and Pharaoh's casino.

But the Wharf proved challenging, its opening suffering protracted delays partly due to a shortage of construction workers in Macau at the time.

Four days after it finally held a 'soft opening' in January 2006, a mainland tourist and her young son were injured when two cars collided on the 'River of Fire' water ride inside the artificial volcano. The ride was closed for inspection and has since been discontinued.

By the time the park celebrated its grand opening on December 23, 2006, a 72-room boutique Victorian-themed hotel, the Rocks, was ready to open its doors. Also making its debut was Babylon, which was originally planned as a disco but was instead launched as a casino with 100 gaming tables and more than 300 slot machines - a tacit if belated acknowledgment of gaming's inseparability from tourism in Macau.

Mr Chow revealed plans at the time for a dramatic expansion of the Wharf. He spoke of a HK$5 billion second phase that would lift total investment in the park to HK$7 billion and more than double the site's area to 23 hectares.

The second phase would include a 1,300-seat opera house, four more themed hotels, including the four-star Prague Harbour View, the river steamboat-shaped Mississippi Queen Hotel with 130 rooms, the 250-room Legend hotel and the boutique Key West marina resort.

News also broke that the company was eyeing a Hong Kong initial public offering, ostensibly to raise funds for the expansion. Meanwhile, Mr Chow spent 2006 selling US$400 million in convertible bonds tied to the park to foreign funds including TPG and Och Ziff.

The proceeds were partly used to buy out a 45 per cent stake in the Wharf held by Mr Ho's SJM Holdings. Assuming Mr Ho received compensation approaching half the proceeds of the bond sales, or US$200 million, that would have more than offset his share of the park's HK$2 billion total construction cost.

Three years on, plans for the Wharf's big expansion remain on the drawing board, and an initial share offer has yet to materialise.

Today, foreign funds appear set to make their inglorious exit from US$340 million in convertible bonds tied to the Wharf by selling them back to Mr Chow for 'just over 50 cents on the dollar', according to one source.

Merrill Lynch will keep its US$60 million in bonds and likely hopes to win a role advising on the share offer - if and when a listing occurs.

Repurchasing his own debt at a hefty discount, Mr Chow stands to pocket up to US$170 million. Stripping out interest paid over the last three years, that sum probably still exceeds his own share of the Wharf's initial construction cost.

To be sure, Macau's first theme park may have proved a gamble too far for foreign funds.

But despite being overshadowed by glitzier new resorts today, for its original developers, at least, the Wharf appears to have been quite the money-spinner.


Amount Wharf's developer David Chow will get from debt buy-back, in US$: $170m