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Big fish tanks right bait for cities

Appeal of aquariums luring tourists to urban areas

By Marnie Hunter

Aquarium visitors watch the graceful sea nettle jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California.
Aquarium visitors watch the graceful sea nettle jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California.

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The first public aquarium opened in 1853 at the London Zoo. The development of the closed life-sustaining system used in London corresponded with improved technology for making glass and the repeal of a restrictive glass tax in Britain in 1845.

(CNN) -- Since the first glass tanks were filled with fish in the mid-1800s, tourists have had their noses pressed up against them, peering in at the mysterious aquatic creatures looking back.

They're still looking from both sides of the glass, too. Travelers increasingly are likely to include an aquarium stop on their itineraries as aquariums sprout in cities across the country, jutting up in glass and concrete angles along waterfronts and urban streets.

The number of free-standing member aquariums in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association has more than doubled since 1989, jumping from 17 members that year to 36 in 2001. At least 20 more facilities are in the planning stages, said Sydney Butler, the association's executive director.

"There is something wonderfully alien, wonderfully fascinating, wonderfully unknown about the underwater world," Butler said recently in a telephone interview from his Silver Spring, Maryland, office. "And people have always had that fascination and probably always will."

Count Charline Pelletier among the fascinated. A student from Paris, France, she was impressed recently with the range of animals at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.

"I love it," she said, surrounded by tanks filled with inhabitants from the world's great rivers. "In France, I've been to [an aquarium], but it's not that big, and you don't have all those kinds of fish."

Pelletier's friend Meghan Kearns, a teacher from Knoxville, Tennessee, has been to the aquarium several times.

"It's peaceful and calm," Kearns said. "It's just fun to have someplace to bring someone who's from Paris, France."

Renewal and economic impact

Chattanooga officials would be pleased to hear that endorsement.

The aquarium has anchored a revitalization of the city's riverfront district, a downtown turnaround that has had an estimated economic impact of $1 billion, with tourists spending 50 percent more than they did in the early 1990s, according to the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

This weedy seadragon, a native of Australia, is part of
This weedy seadragon, a native of Australia, is part of "Seahorses: Beyond Imagination" at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.

Aquarium developments have produced similar results in other cities.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, was part of an economic development plan that city leaders devised in the mid-1970s.

"[Baltimore leaders] realized that cities around the country were taking advantage of rivers and waterfronts and oceanfronts to redesign their urban centers and to attract more tourists and also to attract more of their own residents down to a city center area," said Paula Schaedlich, the National Aquarium's deputy executive director.

The facility is Maryland's largest paid tourist attraction, drawing an annual average of 1.6 million visitors, according to the National Aquarium. It is touted as one of the big fish tanks that signaled a boom in municipal aquarium construction nationwide.

Officials in Georgia have taken note of successes in cities such as Baltimore and Chattanooga. Plans are under way for the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta, a project financed by a $200 million gift from Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus.

City officials said they expect the aquarium, combined with a new Coca-Cola museum and several other attractions, to be a significant asset to the Atlanta convention and tourism market.

Conservation efforts

While keeping visitors coming is important to keeping aquariums open and bringing growth to the cities that host them, aquariums have developed another strong message over time: conservation of the world's aquatic life and its habitat.

start quoteThere is something wonderfully alien, wonderfully fascinating, wonderfully unknown about the underwater world.end quote
-- Sydney Butler, American Zoo and Aquarium Association

Initially conceived as tourist destinations that attract visitors with live animals, facilities such as the National Aquarium in Baltimore have increased their focus on habitats that sustain these animals and what people might be able to do to protect them, Schaedlich said.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, also places more emphasis on conservation, said spokesman Ken Peterson.

"I think people are more aware of the ocean and ocean creatures, and that's one of the things that we hoped would be the case," Peterson said.

"And then our message beyond that is to try and get them involved in protecting the oceans and ocean wildlife," he said. "I think that that's been a change for us over the years."

But for a lot of people, such as Tennessee Aquarium visitor Tyler Williams, 15, the appeal of an aquarium visit remains quite simple.

"It's pretty cool," he said. "It has weird fish."

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