After COVID impact, economic, security challenges choke amusement park industry, operators expect attendance rebound

After COVID impact, economic, security challenges choke amusement park industry, operators expect attendance rebound

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JANET OGUNDEPO writes about how the country’s security challenges and economic gloom among other issues have affected activities at amusement parks

Fun-seekers of diverse ages and genders, laughter coupled with comfy ambience are regular features of an amusement park. Colourful sights, riding tools, waterfalls, bouncing castles among others are usually strategically placed at the parks. These sights attract families and pleasure seekers who throng amusement parks to relish social gathering.

But it seems the spectacle is now experiencing a lull as seats at parks are empty and metal and plastic seats crave human use.

Some managers of amusement parks told Saturday PUNCH that fallout of COVID-19 pandemic, subsequent lockdowns and economic and security challenges combined to affect the once thriving industry.

On February 27, 2020, Nigeria’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed by the Federal Ministry of Health after its outbreak in January 2020 in Wuhan, China.

After the outbreak, the first phase of a nationwide lockdown was announced in April, same year, to mitigate the spread of the virus. It was gradually eased in May 2020.

Empty parks, unused equipment

The Chief Executive Officer, Treasure Amusement Park, Mrs Inyang Ubeng, is one of those who joined the amusement park industry based on the desire to bond families in a cosy atmosphere.

Ubeng told our correspondent that she opened the park in Lagos a few years ago.

She stated that before the pandemic, patronage had begun to decline as fewer children and families visited the park. Ubeng added that the pandemic outbreak and economic crises further dealt the business fatal blows.

Ubeng said, “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we ran the park periodically. Dry season is when children come in more. Some schools that registered with us for swimming lessons to their pupils in our facility became less. The reason was that parents were no longer paying for recreation. This was the challenge we had before Covid-19. Also, they come around when a child is having a birthday party. Some people always opted for the games and areas with a cheaper price.”

She noted that when coronavirus emerged and the government ordered them to shut down, parents had a good reason not to allow their children to go out.

She said, “We had to refund the deposit fee to those who had scheduled birthday parties before the lockdown started and let some workers go.’’

The CEO said she downsized during the pandemic, adding that when the lockdown was lifted, the company resumed to rusty equipment and train rail tracks for lack of use.

“It was like starting afresh. We had to rewire the area where some of our electrical games were, revamp the grid and try to make it work because of disuse. We spent more money to reactivate these things,” she disclosed.

Despite the challenge of renovating and replacing equipment in readiness for a new start for fun-seekers, Ubeng said, “Now, patronage is low and when they come they opt for the areas with little pay. Though during the December festive period, families came out to have fun and after that, the place was like a ghost town. Some of my games are powered by a diesel generator and I wouldn’t turn it on for just two clients. They would rather make use of the manual ones and some might complain that it was not interesting.

“Also, some parents would just come in and say they only want to have a walk around the area without paying. But someone ensures the place is clean and conducive for them to sit and have a walk around.”

Ubeng further said she was hopeful for a better recovery of the business, adding, “I think people are just prioritising how they spend money because they would be thinking of paying school fees first, money for the family’s upkeep before they think of recreation. That’s the way I look at it when they are not coming.”

For Deborah Apochi, when she founded Happy Island Amusement park, Abuja, she was concerned about how people would enjoy a serene place away from hot weather and to foster socialisation among children.

Apochi stated that before the pandemic, the business was thriving as “people came to my park to relax and enjoy the cool of the shade and water.

“But post Covid-19 lockdown, everything went down. It could be fear of the virus, I don’t know, but the business went down. People prevented their children from going out for fear of the virus. This drastically reduced patronage, so much that in a week, we may see a few people come around.”

Saying the drop in patronage was due to the virus, Apochi said that her business suffered huge losses. Like Ubeng, she reduced her workforce and commenced renovation of the park and equipment repairs after business commenced gradually when the lockdown was lifted.

She said, “During the lockdown, we left the place open and could not return to close it, As we didn’t use it for long and there was no one to check through the place, the cinema building had a leakage and the equipment became rusty. We’ll have to get an expert from China to repair that. And because our patronage has been affected, we are confused regarding what to do. There is no money so how do we repair it. We left the cinema the way it is. We downsized to reduce the amount we pay monthly.”

The amusement park owner added that they converted a space where children usually played to a mini-event centre to host wedding or party guests to generate revenue to rebound gradually. She said, “We are still reconstructing and making some repairs.”

Apochi however held the belief that the insecurity situation in the country was not part of the reasons for the reduction in patronage. She identified fear of contracting the virus.

She stated, “Insecurity has not affected patronage in any way, even if there is insecurity, people would still want to come to encourage themselves with others and stay under the tree or in the pool. People get consoled when they are in groups so it is even enough reason for them to come out so they can forget about their troubles.”

Similarly, a caterer and renter of moveable amusement park equipment, Jane Otojarari, said after the Covid-19 lockdown, she had yet to receive a request for rental of her equipment.

She added that her catering business was the aspect that thrived during and after the pandemic.

She said, “The employees we usually use, we do not have them again, we have the games, but no one to use them. Disuse has begun to make them rusty and some of them no longer work as they should. I have not rented them out in about two years.”

Ojorari however hoped that there would be more patronage and rental requests during the approaching festive seasons to prevent further rust and damage to the equipment.

Use of amusement parks globally

Amusement parks globally are popular attraction and recreation sites for thrill, socialisation and fantasy. According to Statista, amusement parks long predate the coming of Disneyland, which popularised the idea and model of what a theme park should look like.

Statista noted that in the United States, amusement parks are categorised as the big money makers with a projected revenue generation of over $22bn in 2019.

Parks in other countries such as Japan, China and the United Arab Emirate, where the fastest roller coaster in the world is located, are also gaining attendance, popularity and generating revenue.

However, following the pandemic, parks globally were reported to have rewritten “the theme park playbook” in line with safety measures. Consumer News and Business Channel reported that during the pandemic, parks in the United States, operated less than usual capacity and enforced the wearing of face masks, use of sanitisers and adherence to social distancing. They further introduced the use of technology to replace tasks employees engaged in the parks, thereby downsizing staff strength. Also, cashless means of payment and ticketing options were enforced.

CNBC added that in the long term, parks would be redesigned to reduce human touchpoints, adding that “queuing and riding strategies that focused on parking people into close quarters will change.”

Also, China Global Television Network reported on May 19, 2020, that the tourist hotspot and animal conservation institution, Hong Kong Ocean Park announced that it would go bankrupt in June that year if it did not receive a $700m bailout fund.

CGTN added that amusement parks in China that opened during the pandemic operated under 30 per cent of their usual capacity and the business performances of the parks were “significantly affected” with the hope of full recovery a year after.

Our correspondent found out that amusement and recreation parks in the country had yet to fully recover. Managers and owners of the parks also noted that the economic and insecurity situation in the country had hindered recovery.

However, in Lagos State, there are free parks open for picnics.

It was gathered that there are 10 parks in Lagos and free to a certain level. People can come in with their mats or sit on the grass and have a picnic. However, a request to get a secluded place or a place to host a certain number of persons would require payment and this is based on the amount of space requested.

Security, economic challenges affecting recovery

The dream of running a serene place where families can hangout fuelled the establishment of Splash Waterpark, the Manager, Isaiah Itodo, told our correspondent.

He said that after the lockdown was lifted, resumption of business activities was like starting less than what we began with. Itodo stated, “We lost some of our equipment because of disuse. Of course, customers feared the virus so business has not been the same after the lockdown.”

He added that the workers were retained and the monthly payment was from “personal savings.’’

He noted, “We have been a bit better than when the lockdown just ended. Having to go through the challenges of increment in materials has not been fun and consequently, we had to increase entry fee.”

“Tenacity, despite the biting economic situation which had reduced patronage, was what had pushed us through in ensuring we are still in business.’’

He added that some equipment had to be refurbished when the park resumed activities after the lockdown.

According to the manager, the security situation is another factor that affected patronage.

He stated, “We are in an outdoor area and with the insecurity in the country, people are not feeling safe coming out of their houses. Despite this, we ensure that our environment is safe and that every one of our clients returns home.”

 One of the managers of Maitama Amusement Park, Abuja, who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity, said that the insecurity situation and the harsh economic situation were factors hindering the patronage of amusement parks.

The manager said, “Now, lack of patronage has nothing to do with COVID-19, it has to do with the economic situation and the insecurity issue in the country. People even find it difficult to leave the comfort of their houses and come to where people can see them. The fear is palpable in people.

“An average Nigerian man would want to feed his family first. Leisure and recreation are secondary except they want to celebrate a birthday or have a family gathering. But if it is for the fun of it, no, it takes someone who is above average financially to indulge in that.

“The cost of feeding has risen. How can you talk about recreation when you can hardly feed your family, pay your rent and tuition? The fear of Covid-19 is not here anymore.”

 She added that the setback in patronage affected the park, expressing hope that recreational activities would rebound once the insecurity situation and economy were addressed.

Similarly, the Manager of Shodex Gardens, Lagos, Olaoluwa Adekoya, said that despite the disruption the pandemic brought on business activities, the constant increase in the price of commodities and the insecurity had brought about a reduction in patronage.

He added that to encourage customers, the park was working on ensuring a secure environment.

Adekoya said, “When Covid-19 pandemic came, it affected our business. Also, the increase in the prices of everything made customers complain. We pray to God that business will pick up the way it used to be. We also have been re-strategising with the hope that things would be better.”

On his part, the operator of a family entertainment centre in Abuja, Amusement Capital, Mr Clement Ezeolisah, said patronage was slowly improving.

He said, “The security issue is one of the challenges affecting patronage. Also, the economic situation, people complain of lack of money and this has affected us too.”

Due to the lack of patronage, Ezeolisah said he had to reduce his workers and review his staff structure.

Ezeolisah said, “The entertainment industry is not a primary industry like those in the industry that caters to the basic need of people. Recreation and entertainment come in when one must have taken care of the necessities of life. So we are looking at the situation that when the economic situation improves there would be a boom in the industry again.”

For an amusement park in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, opened during the pandemic, TCK Family Park, the Human Resource Manager, Emmanuel Nwanyanwu, attributed the lack of patronage to economic situation, stating that the security challenges were of no effect in the area.

He added that festive seasons and the weekends were the peak period in patronage.

Nwanyanwu said, “New Year’s day including first and second days when fun-seekers move around, patronage reduced such that during the weekdays, there is little or no activity except for the weekends when we see a few persons come around. I believe that the impact of Covid-19 is still on many individuals and families because finances have yet to improve.

“The insecurity level in Rivers State is lower, especially in the capital, so it is better. But there is the psychological scare that people would not want to stay outside when it is getting dark.”

He further said that despite the reduction in the entry fee and price of games to encourage patronage, customers still complained about the price, adding that the economic situation was a huge factor affecting the business.

Nwanyanwu noted that they had to reduce workers and restructure the staffing system.

Gadgets can’t replace visits to amusement parks – Parents

A realtor and father, Leslie Ejiro, told Saturday PUNCH that he took his children to recreational centres after the lockdown was lifted and parks were opened for business.

He stated that there was no way gadgets could replace such fun events.

Ejiro added, “I am sure that if you ask kids themselves they will tell you the same thing. Taking them to recreational parks is important as they will meet other kids, engage in physical exercises by playing and gaming, see new places and learn new things. None of these can be covered by gadgets as will be done at gardens and parks.”

Similarly, a civil servant and father, identified only as Zulqarnain, also said gadgets cannot replace the social, mental and educational benefits that would be derived when children engage in outdoor, recreational activities and visits to amusement parks.

He added that technology advancements and lack of space for a playground and outdoor activities in some schools were hampering the engagement of children in outdoor and recreational activities.

Zulqarnain said, “Most schools nowadays don’t meet up to standard as some of them don’t have space to even have outdoor recreation for the kids. They rarely go on an excursion. They resume school at 8am, close by 2pm and then have lessons till 4pm.

“They get home and are indoors till the next day and are probably too tired by the weekend or have assignments etc. They end up their young lives being indoors, then they begin to indulge more and curiosity makes them explore the Internet, watch more kinds of stuff that unconsciously shape their minds.”

He also said that the security situation globally and having both parents working longer hours without time for recreation with the kids had also robbed children of the opportunity to engage in outdoor activities.

The civil servant said “Growing up in my generation, we played mostly outside, learnt to be strong and engaged in human interaction. It is a great form of exercise also as we were more active. However, if educational and recreational indoor activities can be incorporated with outdoor activities, excellent developmental achievements can be achieved in parenting and raising children.”

In her comment, a mother, Mojisola Michael-Ekpangbo, said that when children engage in physical and social activities such as those obtainable in playgrounds and amusement parks, it served as a form of exercise, interaction with nature and the environment as well as “shedding off sugar consumed from treats.”

She added, “Video games and other virtual gadgets engage a child in an all-round growth and development. However, physical engagement, healthy activities and play, handling, seeing and feeling things in 3D help them intellectually. Natural engagement with their environment is key because they will grow to be responsible for it.”

Recreation vital for balanced development of children, say sociologists

Commenting on the development, a professor of sociology at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, John Gyong, advised parents and guardians to be deliberate in creating recreation time for their children.

He stated that doing such would aid the socialisation and all-round development of children.

He faulted the time children less than five spend in academic activities with little or no time for physical recreation and socialisation.

Gyong added, “Time for recreation must be created and managed by experts who would then fill the gap. Parents have abdicated their responsibilities in their children’s upbringing to schools and teachers because they are engaged in other activities and trying to chase one thing or the other or what they consider to be in the best interest of the family, not knowing the negative implications on the rounded upbringing of the child.

“Most of the time you see children in parks during festivities such as Christmas, Sallah, New Year and other festivities. They find time to take the children for recreation in those places but it should be regular, maybe weekends should be deliberately created so that children can go out and mix with other children outside the conventional school environment. A child has a lot to learn but remember that for everything you do, there are positive or negative consequences. While the child would have an opportunity to learn some good things from their peers, from what the recreation centre would create and from school, there are several benefits that the child would get. But don’t also overlook the largely negative benefits of that. In such cases they can come across bad peers and friends who can influence them negatively, that is how society is.”

The don added that the outbreak of Covid-19 and the country’s insecurity had brought a limitation on socialisation of people, identifying that children were the most affected.

He stressed that the issue of insecurity also limited the interaction of children with their peers, arguing that peer socialisation was important for a child.

“A child who may not be very free with his or her parents or teacher because of the holistic nature of such an environment feels freer when he or she meets his or her peers. So that is an important component in the upbringing of a child and because of the limitations of the insecurity, economic and Covid-19 challenges, those are the realities we are to live with today. But then we have to find a way of trying to make up.

“In respect to recreation grounds, of course, parents must be sure that there is adequate security and the security sector must provide enough security that would let children feel free and safe in such places. Similarly, the Covid-19 in Nigeria is not such a serious matter now and so children can be allowed free access. Parents, who also use children to augment their income through hawking or other activities, should desist from it. Deliberate measures must be taken to create a time for recreation for the children because it helps them in the overall upbringing of the children.”

Another professor of sociology at the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Martin Ifeanacho, said pleasure parks offer ample opportunities for children and parents to socialise, establish new relationships with people, adding that it also helped in consolidating existing relationships.

Ifeanacho lamented the state of the current housing structure that no longer put in cognizance playgrounds and gardens that would foster socialisation and play for children.

He added, “When children are at pleasure parks, they are free, can exhibit who they are and the behavioural patterns you would normally not notice in the school, in the family and at religious centres. These places help children establish confidence that would help them communicate with people, learn how to address people, accommodate expectations of people and establish expectations of other people. It gives that kind of freedom to express oneself, learn and exchange knowledge.

“It is necessary for a balanced development in terms of personality, learning the appropriate behaviour in different situations, expressing oneself, establishing relationships beyond what one has in churches, school and the family. Taking the children out and participating in outdoor activities would also create a stronger bond between couples and families. When couples join the children in playing, they let out steam, balancing the health of parents and children. Children also demand visits to parks because they know the joy and freedom they get from such places.”

Considering the country’s economic and insecurity challenges hindering constant visits to parks, the professor of sociology noted that there were ways to protect one’s children.

He added, “First of all, don’t let them out of your sight. In cases where you have hyperactive children, barricades that would prevent the child from moving outside your reach should be put in place. For the older children, you would always advise them to stay together under the supervision of another adult or parent. The park managers must have security measures that are child friendly. Closed-Circuit Television cameras can be installed so that people can play safely and return to their homes.

“The economy is bad now and that is why we need to visit some of these places.  It is not so that one can buy expensive food sold there. It can be a picnic where one can prepare one’s food and eat there while one interacts with others. The cost of going out cannot be compared to the consequences of not going out and bottling one’s thoughts. The gains of going out are so much that one doesn’t attach monetary values to them.”

He also advised park owners to design parks in ways that the fees would not hurt the “economic pocket of people so much.’’

Ifeanacho urged schools and religious centres to also make available spaces in their buildings to organise activities that would foster socialisation.

“Let us have a life that can encourage us to appreciate the value of establishing relationships with people without suspecting everybody. If you watch the society we are now in, parents don’t want to even accept smiles from outsiders such that if you smile at a little child, the parent comes immediately to block the view. Children need love, not only from their parents, they should be trained to have a free mind and to stand up for themselves, though it is a known fact that there are bad people out there,” he stated.

On his part, another sociologist, Dr Francesca Attoh, emphasised that the benefits of outdoor visits to parks cannot be quantified in the socialisation process of children.

Attoh advised parents to innovate creative ways to ensure children were not cut off from outdoor socialisation, adding that the current situation would not be permanent.

Attoh said, “The truth is that such places are good for the socialisation of the children. Today, not all the schools, especially public schools, have the kind of facilities that schools used to have in the past, where children can interact with their friends during break periods. Things such as football fields, basketball courts, lawn tennis and table tennis courts were things schools provided in the past. A child would need to study and also need to play; each of them has a positive effect on the child’s growth. When a child plays, the child interacts with his peers and also learns maybe a group activity on how to share and things like that.

“They don’t need to visit amusement parks. The just concluded NUGA games witnessed many parents who brought their children to see the games. This is also a form of outing because it is not in all situations that outings might involve financial commitments, even if the family doesn’t have so much money to spend on outings that might involve paying for tickets and other extra items, the parent can take the children to places like the airport or train terminals. That way, they can learn how planes take off, land and how trains move. In addition to the family interactions, it also helps in the education of the child.”

She further stated that parents should ensure the safety of the places where their children would visit.

Attoh stated that children were actually not looking for expensive outings, stating that oftentimes, parents didn’t know this.

She said, “What children want is to be in a space where their parents would also be with them. They find it enjoyable and it also improves socialisation.”

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