By Alexandra Harney
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Dalian Wanda Group, the Chinese entertainment giant owned by the country's richest man, opened the first phase of a sprawling 34 billion yuan ($5.1 billion) tourism park in the eastern city of Hefei on Saturday.
Wanda is building similar projects around the country, betting that China's rising incomes will drive more domestic tourism. In an interview with Reuters last month, chairman Wang Jianlin said that Wanda would look to build at least 20 such complexes in China.
The 160 hectare (1.6 square km) first phase of Hefei Wanda City includes a theme park, hotels and a shopping mall. The second phase will be an "indoor recreation project," according to a statement from the company. Wanda intends to extend the park into a third phase, which is still in the planning stages, it said.
Wang has been open about his rivalry with Walt Disney Co, which opened a $5.5 billion resort in Shanghai in June. "At Wanda, I always say we want to ensure Disney is not profitable for 10-20 years in this business segment in China," he told state-run China Central Television (CCTV) in a May interview.
China's slowing economy has taken a toll on some areas of consumer spending. Outbound tourism numbers - which rose 16 percent in 2015 - are set to flatline this year, according to China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) data. At Wanda Cinema Line Corp, Wanda's theater arm, box office sales rose 12.8 percent in the second quarter of this year, compared to a 61.4 percent jump in the first quarter.
Wanda has been investing heavily as it seeks to triple revenues from its cultural division - which includes entertainment, sports and tourism - to 150 billion yuan ($22.5 billion) by 2020.
On Friday, Wanda announced a partnership with Sony Pictures under which Wanda will market Sony Pictures' films and co-finance some upcoming movie releases of Sony Corp's film unit in China.
In January, Wanda paid $3.5 billion for a controlling stake in U.S. film studio Legendary Entertainment. It has also acquired Swiss sports marketing firm Infront Sports & Media AG and World Triathlon Corp, owner of the "Ironman" franchise.
Hefei Wanda City will host China's first Ironman triathlon, according to the statement. The race is scheduled for October 16, according to Ironman's website.
(Reporting By Alexandra Harney; Editing by Sam Holmes)