Belfast Telegraph

Aquarium attraction plan for Belfast could create 150 jobs

By Margaret Canning

An aquarium company has confirmed it is in talks to build an attraction in Belfast with the potential to create up to 150 jobs, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

At present Northern Ireland has just one such attraction, Exploris in Portaferry, Co Down. It was closed for two years due to financial problems before reopening last August, and is now operated by Crumlin Road Gaol Ltd.

Lee Jennings, chief business development officer at aquatic attraction developer and operator Tolliday Group International (TGI), told the Belfast Telegraph that talks were taking place with a view to opening an aquarium in the city.

However, he would not give details of who the company was in discussions with.

Tolliday Group International is registered in Portaferry but does not have active operations here. Mr Jennings said the family of marine biologist and company founder Adrian Tolliday was from Northern Ireland, and that Mr Tolliday had lived here for some time before working overseas in the Gulf.

Mr Jennings explained: "This is part of the reason for locating the business in Northern Ireland, but also it reflects our intention to develop a major project there as well in the near future."

He added that the company could employ up to 150 people in operating the attraction.

His comments came as the firm announced a deal to work on an aquarium in Muscat, Oman.

Mr Jennings said: "We have conducted a feasibility study for Belfast and are currently in talks with several investors and potential partners."

However, he said non-disclosure agreements meant that no further information could be revealed.

Mr Jennings added: "What I can say is, the initial feasibility study looks healthy and is very promising.

"It has identified several potential sites, one of which could be the Titanic Quarter, but not exclusively. It is still too early to say."

He explained the company would be considering its next steps, with meetings due to take place this month.

A spokesman for Titanic Quarter said it had no plans for an aquarium.

Mr Jennings said its projects were usually between 8,000 and 20,000 square metres in size.

"Based on figures for Oman, we would expect to employ between 100 to 150 staff, once it is open," he explained.

"There is, of course, a tangible effect on the supply chain for products, equipment and services, many of which we would expect to source locally."

He said TGI did not carry out the building, but worked in partnership with civil contractors.

"In Oman we have a local partner who supplies personnel and labour, but works to our specifications and designs.

"We would expect to work in the same way in Belfast and other locations around the world."

This week Al Jarwani Group in Oman announced it had appointed TGI to supervise and operate its new aquarium in Muscat, which is due to open next year.

Adrian Tolliday has been involved in a number of aquarium projects in the Middle East, and was vice-president at Atlantis, the Palm Aquarium in Dubai, and head curator at Dubai Aquarium in the Dubai Mall.

In a statement about the Muscat project, Mr Tolliday said: "This is a super-exciting time for us as a company. We are very proud to be involved in this project."

Exploris shut for two years after Ards Borough Council decided to stop funding the attraction, which was costing around £600,000 per year.

But in February last year around £0.9m was secured from the then Department of the Environment, with around £0.6m secured from the council and Crumlin Road Gaol Ltd.

Exploris then reopened in August with new enclosures for the wide range of fish and aquatic species. It also includes a seal sanctuary and living environments for otters.

It has a fully-licensed restaurant too, and is due to host events next month as part of the Northern Ireland Science Festival.

Belfast Telegraph

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