British Columbia

Vancouver Aquarium sold to U.S. tourism company

The Vancouver Aquarium has been sold from Ocean Wise Conservation Association to Herschend Enterprises, a privately owned tourism company based in the United States.

Former owner Ocean Wise says sale was made 'to save the aquarium from permanent closure'

The Vancouver Aquarium. pictured on Feb. 24, 2020, has been sold from Ocean Wise Conservation Association to Herschend Enterprises, a privately-owned tourism company based in the U.S. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The Vancouver Aquarium has been sold to a privately owned tourism company based in the United States to avoid shutting down as a result of financial losses over the past year.

The aquarium announced the sale to Herschend Enterprises on Thursday, saying the deal was made "to save the aquarium from permanent closure as a result of severe financial challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Ocean Wise, which has run the facility since 2017, said it only managed this long without a sale due to financial aid and public donations.

"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 not-for-profit organization like ours," said Ocean Wise president Lasse Gustavsson.

"We found a solution.... It's fantastic news and a win-win-win."

The aquarium has been mostly shut down since the pandemic began, aside from a partial reopening for three months last summer with $2 million in federal aid.

It closed again in September.

Company also owns theme parks, U.S. aquariums

Ocean Wise predicted last year the aquarium would run out of money this spring, even after laying off hundreds of staff, applying for government financial aid and receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.

The non-profit said it costs $1 million every month to feed and care for the 70,000 animals in the aquarium. 

The aquarium started looking for a new operator in the fall, when it "became clear" tourism likely wouldn't return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2022. The organization looked at 70 potential partners both in B.C. and globally before settling into negotiations with Herschend in January.

The deal was signed late Wednesday for an undisclosed price. Herschend now has full ownership of the aquarium.

Vancouver Aquarium staffer Jessica DeBenedetto feeds a sea lion in the main walkway of the aquarium on Sept. 10, 2020. The aquarium has been closed to the public during much of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Herschend, originally founded by two brothers in Missouri in 1950, owns a dozen theme parks, amusement parks, water parks and aquariums in the southern United States.

It has been criticized for managing Stone Mountain Park in Georgia, which has been a gathering spot for white supremacists for decades. The park has the largest Confederate monument ever built, with sculptures of confederate leaders carved into the granite. 

Protesters have long called for the carving to be removed.

The company is also known for its ownership of Dollywood — an amusement park co-owned by musician Dolly Parton — as well as the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition basketball team.

'Eager' to reopen post-pandemic

A company representative said Herschend is "eager" to reopen the aquarium as soon as it's safe to do so and vowed to maintain the facility's "unique brand."

"We know the Vancouver Aquarium is beloved by the community, that's very clear," said Eric Rose, Herschend's executive director.

"We're not bringing in a group of people to come work in Vancouver ... the team there is fully capable," he said. "We're going to bring in the money ... [and] let local management do what they do best."

Ocean Wise's chief operating officer, Clint Wright, will continue to lead the team at the aquarium.

Over 200 employees were laid off during the closure, and the aquarium was dangerously close to bankruptcy.

"Everybody here has come through such a difficult, cold, wintertime to actually be facing what is now a really, really bright future for the aquarium," Wright said. 

Rose was equally optimistic. 

"Vancouver, British Columbia is an iconic tourist destination and eventually it will rebound," he said. "We hope to bring a lot of [the laid-off staff] back, if not all of them back. Hopefully, within a relatively short time, it may not be weeks or months, it may take a year or two, where tourism rebounds, and we're going to be operating back like the glory days."

Sale includes donation deal

The aquarium is the company's first Canadian venture.

Ocean Wise had been running the aquarium since the non-profit launched in 2017.

As part of the sale agreement, Herschend will donate one per cent of its annual gross revenues from the aquarium to Ocean Wise to support its conservation program.

The aquarium was the first public aquarium in Canada when it opened in 1956. The facility is located in Stanley Park, on land leased by the city.

With files from The Associated Press, On The Coast