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.

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