New £12m aquarium ‘threat to Exploris’

New £12m aquarium ‘threat to Exploris’

9 September 2020

CONCERN has been voiced about the impact of a new £12m aquarium in Belfast on the current Exploris facility in Portaferry and wider peninsula.

Last week, Belfast City Council approved plans for the new aquarium at the Titanic Quarter, but Stormont planning minister Nichola Mallon has been urged to have the final say.

Local politicians and Ards and North Down Council are urging Mrs Mallon to use the ‘call in’ procedure which would allow her to decide if the Belfast proposal is allowed to proceed.

The new aquarium, which could create more than 50 full-time jobs, is operated by ReefLive which is planning to create what would be the biggest facility of its kind on the island, attracting as many as 300,000 visitors annually.

Exploris is currently Northern Ireland’s only aquarium, with the local community and politicians fighting a rearguard action to keep it open six years ago and securing a £1m investment from the Northern Ireland Executive.

Strangford MLA Kellie Armstrong and Ards and North Down Council are concerned about the impact the Belfast proposal will have on Exploris and are fearful of what it will do to tourism across the peninsula.

Mrs Armstrong believes there is “absolutely no necessity” for another aquarium in Northern Ireland and has warned that if the Titanic Quarter proposal is allowed to progress “it will have a significant detrimental economic impact on Exploris, Portaferry and tourism in general in the Ards peninsula.”

In its objection to the Belfast proposal, the local authority said it was “very concerned” that the Titanic Quarter project would negatively affect Exploris and have wider ramifications for Portaferry and wider area.

The council chief executive, Stephen Reid, wrote to the City Council in August stating “we have serious concerns in relation to the potential duplication and overlap an additional aquarium may bring to the Northern Ireland market.”

He also wrote to Mrs Mallon urging her to “call in” the application.

Mr Reid said “there seems to have been no regard given to the fact that there are current challenges regarding recruitment of specialist aquarists and the council is concerned regarding potential shortages in the labour market and potential staffing of Exploris.”

In response to the appeals to call in the application, the Department for Infrastructure confirmed that it is “currently considering” the concerns raised by Ards and North Down Council.

“The Department received a request from Ards and North Down B Council on September 2 to call in the aquarium application which it is currently considering and no further comment can therefore be made at this stage,” added a spokesperson.

Former Strangford MLA Kieran McCarthy, who was instrumental in fighting to save Exploris, said “it would be shameful” if a new facility led to the closure of the Portaferry aquarium after previous campaigns to keep it open.

“I do feel very strongly that it will have an impact on Exploris in Portaferry when this new one becomes operational,” he said.

“People living in the city probably want one and that’s OK but you have got to, in my opinion, look at the overall picture of the economy of Northern Ireland and if that’s going to be detrimental to Portaferry, which hasn’t got much going for it other than tourism.”

Mr McCarthy said he hopes that those in positions of power, both in Stormont and Ards and North Down Council, “will realise the threat that Exploris will be under when this new one comes about.”

The council’s DUP leader, Robert Adair, has urged the local authority “to dispense with negativity” over the threat to Exploris and instead focus on marketing the special and unique tourist facilities offered by the Ards Peninsula.

He said there was plenty on offer for tourists in the Ards and North Down area and a positive promotion was now necessary.

Mr Adair added: “We should not be worried about what Belfast is doing,” he said. “What we need to do now is focus on Exploris and the unique experience it has to offer for the whole family.

“There’s too much negativity about the prospect of a new aquarium coming to Belfast, but now is the time to really start promoting the peninsula and all it has to offer.”

Keith Thomas, managing director of reefLIVE Ltd, said he was “thrilled” with Belfast City Council’s decision.

“Our commitment to building our first reefLIVE aquarium in Belfast is testament to the city’s track record for tourism excellence and an unwavering confidence that sustained investment in Northern Ireland’s tourism and leisure sector will prove vital for the region’s recovery in a post-COVID world,” he said.

It’s understood that around 13 representations were received in relation to the Titanic Quarter planning application, including 10 letters of objection, with concerns including the potential negative impact on the Portaferry aquarium.