BEIJING (AFP) - A Chinese real estate investment firm has announced it has become the largest shareholder in SeaWorld and intends to import the US company's controversial theme parks into China.
The Zhonghong Zhuoye group said in a statement released on Friday night (March 24) it will buy a 21 per cent stake in SeaWorld Entertainment, whose shows featuring killer whales have been slammed by animal rights groups.
The Chinese firm bought its stake from Blackstone at a price of US$23 (S$32) per share , with the transaction expected to be worth approximately US$430 million.
The purchase, which is expected to be finalised in the second quarter, will make Zhonghong the largest shareholder in SeaWorld, with the possibility of raising its stake to 24.9 per cent.
The deal will provide Zhonghong with exclusive rights to develop theme parks in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, SeaWorld said in a separate statement.
"We are delighted to engage with SeaWorld to bring this iconic, world-class family entertainment brand to China," said Yoshikazu Maruyama, President of US Operations at Zhonghong, said in the statement.
"Zhonghong Group is making a significant, long-term investment in SeaWorld, reflecting their appreciation of the strength of our brand, our potential to grow the company and a shared commitment to protect wildlife and the environment," said SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby.
Founded in 1959, SeaWorld Entertainment is the operator of twelve parks across the United States, including three amusement parks called SeaWorld dedicated to marine attractions, with killer whale and dolphin shows.
But their reputation has been tainted by several scandals and by the fierce opposition of environmental organisations.
In 2010, a killer whale grabbed the ponytail of Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer, and dragged her underwater to her death in front of horrified onlookers at the end of a show at SeaWorld Orlando.
The whale, nicknamed "Tilly," was involved in the death of a part-time trainer at the Sealand of the Pacific facility in Canada in 1991 and that of a man who died in 1999 after he sneaked into SeaWorld to swim with the mammals after the park closed.
CNN featured Tilly in a 2013 documentary, "Blackfish", that covered those fatalities and also sought to show the impact of captivity on these giant sea creatures.
Animal rights groups charge that killer whales were kept in tanks that are too small, fed improper diets and forced to perform tricks.
The group prides itself on having "saved more than 29,000 animals in distress over the last fifty years" and having "sensitised" 400 million visitors to killer whales.
However, under public pressure, SeaWorld last March announced it would stop breeding killer whales, and would no longer keep any of them in captivity after its current generation dies.