Wanda sells off tourism, hotel projects to Sunac for $12.8b; shares rocket 155%

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Dalian Wanda Group said it would sell Chinese tourism projects and hotels to Sunac China for US$9.3 billion (S$12.84 billion), marking a step back for the property giant from its theme park ambitions.

The sale - the second-biggest real estate deal ever in China according to Reuters data - is however expected to help Wanda cut its debt pile and strengthen its case for a listing on the mainland after it delisted from Hong Kong last year.

Shares in Wanda Hotel Development rocketted more than 150 per cent after the news.

Wanda said it would sell 91 per cent of 13 cultural tourism projects, that typically include theme parks and leisure complexes, as well as 76 hotels to the acquisitive Tianjin-based developer Sunac for a total of 63.18 billion yuan.

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The Chinese group, with businesses spanning real estate, films, sports and entertainment, had plans to build at least 20 such cultural projects around China. Its billionaire owner Wang Jianlin had last year said his "wolf pack" of parks would beat US rival Walt Disney.

"This (deal) signifies a retreat from Wanda's previous strategy in cultural tourism, and marks a pivot to an asset-light strategy," said Qin Gang, senior researcher at State Information Center, a government-linked thinktank.

While Wanda did not give a reason for the sale, local business magazine Caixin quoted Wang saying the deal would greatly reduce Wanda Commercial's debt level and help the property unit to achieve an "asset-light" operation.

"Through this asset transfer, Wanda Commercial's debt ratio will be greatly reduced, all the proceeds will be used to repay loans. Wanda Commercial plans to repay most of the bank loans this year," Wang told Caixin.

S&P downgraded Wanda Commercial in December citing rising financial leverage and slower-than-expected asset disposal at China's largest commercial developer. Another downgrade would push the rating into "junk" category.

Wanda has been investing heavily in entertainment, leisure and financial businesses and the buying spree has drawn the attention of Chinese regulators, who ordered lenders last month to assess exposure to overseas deals by Wanda, HNA Group, Anbang Insurance and Fosun.

Wanda had earmarked a more than 300 billion yuan investment for its cultural and tourism projects. It has also been very active globally, buying US cinema chain operator AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc and taking a controlling stake in US film studio Legendary Entertainment last year.

The 91 per cent stake in Wanda cultural and tourism projects, located across the country from the northern city of Harbin to Kunming in the south, will fetch 29.58 billion yuan. The price tag for the hotels is 33.6 billion yuan.

Wanda said Sunac, led by magnate Sun Hongbin, will be responsible for all the loans for the projects, but the brand name and design of the projects will remain unchanged, and they will still be operated and managed by Wanda.

Sunac, whose shares in Hong Kong were suspended from trading ahead of what it said would be a "very substantial acquisition"announcement, declined to comment further.