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Facing closure, Vancouver Aquarium sold to U.S. entertainment company

Facing the possibility of permanent closure because of revenue losses during the pandemic, the Vancouver Aquarium said Thursday it now has a future after being sold to a privately owned U.S. theme park and entertainment company.
A sea lion swims past the window of an empty viewing area at the Vancouver Aquarium, closed to the public by the coronavirus, in September 2020. Jonathan Hayward, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Facing the possibility of permanent closure because of revenue losses during the pandemic, the Vancouver Aquarium said Thursday it now has a future after being sold to a privately owned U.S. theme park and entertainment company.

Herschend Enterprises has bought the aquarium for an undisclosed amount. It is the company’s first acquisition outside of the U.S.

Herschend, based in Atlanta, operates properties such as Dollywood, an amusement park owned with legendary entertainer Dolly Parton, as well as the Harlem Globetrotters, and two other aquariums.

Lasse Gustavsson, president and CEO of Ocean Wise Conservation Association, the non-profit formed in 2017 to operate the Vancouver Aquarium located in Stanley Park, said when the aquarium closed last September and permanently laid off 209 full- and part-time workers, it started exploring how it was going to survive. While it was open during the summer, revenue dropped by about 75 per cent.

“It’s not cheap to run an aquarium, and running an aquarium without any income is only possible for a short period of time, especially for a non-profit organization like ours,” Gustavsson said during a virtual news conference on Thursday.

Ocean Wise concluded that tourism wasn’t likely to recover until next year, but the organization would run out of money this spring.

Working with adviser KPMG, Ocean Wise talked to 70 potential operators. In January, it began negotiating with Herschend. It was an unusual situation, Gustavsson said, because nobody had ever bought an aquarium in Canada before.

“The alternative to finding a new operator was closing the aquarium,” Gustavsson said. “I am very glad today that we could avoid that. The aquarium will have a new owner with the operational experience and financial capacity to carry the aquarium through the pandemic and make the necessary investments.

“This is fantastic news.”

The Vancouver Aquarium’s 2019 annual report said it had an operating budget of $42 million, and depended on about half of its revenues coming from admissions and membership. The aquarium was founded in 1956.

Eric Rose, vice-president of Herschend Enterprises, said the Vancouver Aquarium is the “gold standard” when it came to aquariums.

“It is a renowned place for education and conservation, with a well-earned global reputation,” he said on Thursday.

He said Herschend has grown from a small, family owned business in the 1960s in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri to a family of brands that entertain more than 14 million people annually at 25 properties that employ more than 10,000 people. Herschend’s other aquariums are in Camden, NJ, and Newport, Ky.

He said the Vancouver Aquarium intends to continue its relationships with schools and conservation groups and local Indigenous people as well as the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.

“Vancouver Aquarium is exactly that — Vancouver’s aquarium. That means offering unique, local and very authentic experiences that are not found at any other aquarium, anywhere else.”

He said everyone is working on a reopening plan.

“We are eager to reopen as soon as it’s responsible to do so,” he said.

In June, 2019, Ocean Wise and Vancouver Park Board signed a 35-year lease. A year earlier, Ocean Wise agreed to no longer display cetaceans. It was a dramatic change for the aquarium, which for years had fought in the courts and in public against any attempt to stop it from collecting and displaying whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

In a prepared statement sent by email, the Vancouver Park Board said: “It’s wonderful to know that this world-class animal care and rescue facility, educational centre, and top tourist destination will remain open in Vancouver, and we look forward to working with the new owners to help build upon the aquarium’s remarkable work.”

One of the people at the centre of the campaign to stop the aquarium displaying cetaceans was Annelise Sorg, president of No Whales in Captivity. She said she is not surprised by the sale.

“They’re just trying to make money,” she said. “This is something that the members and supporters of the Vancouver Aquarium have to open their eyes to and realize that this is not about education and research. This is about entertainment — and they’ve just proved it again.”