Northern Ireland

Exploris aquarium: Councillors to decide future of tourist attraction

Exploris aquarium entrance
Image caption The aquarium, which the council opened 26 years ago, could be closed and sold

The future of one of Northern Ireland's top tourist attractions is due to be decided at a council meeting on Wednesday night.

The council-run Exploris aquarium in Portaferry, County Down, is facing closure after a take-over deal with a private firm collapsed.

Last week, Ards Borough Council's development committee recommended that the aquarium should be shut and sold.

The recommendation is to be discussed at a meeting of the full council.

Eighteen people are currently employed on permanent contracts at Exploris.

'Financial burden'

DUP councillor Trevor Cummings, who chairs the development committee, said last week that the level of expenditure required to keep the centre open was "not sustainable in this economic climate".

It currently costs ratepayers £600,000 per year to maintain the marine conservation facility on the shore of Strangford Lough.

The council had been trying to find ways to "reduce the financial burden" on ratepayers and it sought private sector involvement.

The private firm, Livingstone Leisure, submitted a successful bid to take over the aquarium and surrounding parkland on a 25-year lease.

However, the deal fell through earlier this month after the firm failed to reach agreement on staff pension provision.

Image caption A seal sanctuary, caring for sick and orphaned seal pups, opened in 1999

The tourist attraction first opened in 1987, when it was known as the Northern Ireland Aquarium.

'Animal stock'

Throughout its 26-year history it has always been owned and operated by Ards Borough Council.

It was extended and renamed Exploris in 1994.

Its seal sanctuary, which helps to rescue and rehabilitate sick, injured and orphaned seal pups, opened in 1999.

If the closure proceeds, the council has said that a plan will be developed "to ensure the proper care of all animal stock".

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