City is upbeat on Down Under

The aquarium's Australian exhibit opening is creating optimism in the tourism industry


Baltimore's tourism industry is revving up for the opening of the National Aquarium's new Australian pavilion in anticipation of a jump in visitors lured by crocodiles, venomous snakes and a thundering 35-foot waterfall - and its tie-in to a popular cable channel.

The $74.6 million addition, "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes," is set to open Dec. 16, immersing visitors in a world that few will see in a lifetime. The hand-carved habitat, intricately painted with pale lichens and scorch marks depicting lightning-sparked fires, will be home to 1,800 individual native animals representing 120 species - including freshwater crocodiles, turtles, fishes, free-flying birds and flying foxes.

Hotels, restaurants and other attractions are looking for a pop from the 400,000 more visitors that the aquarium expects next year. Convention officials are ballyhooing it as a sales tool for the city's faltering convention center. For its part, the aquarium intends to promote its latest expansion in phases, targeting local residents first and gradually widening the circle with a goal of topping 2 million visitors by 2010.

"The potential is tremendous," said Lyn Frankel, the aquarium's senior director of marketing.

"We have this fabulous new exhibit, and we also have frogs. We really think that this whole building is going to create a new interest in the aquarium and in Baltimore as a tourist destination."

A taste of the land Down Under - in Baltimore - is another more selling point for the city, tourism officials say.

"We've been talking this up for a year, to group tour markets and meeting planners," said Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "The aquarium is already a very popular attraction in and of itself, so with this expansion it's almost like adding a whole new attraction to the Inner Harbor. ... You drive down Pratt Street, and you can see the glass structure right there. Who wouldn't want to go in?"

BACVA officials hope the new exhibit will boost overnight leisure travelers and business at the convention center, which has never met projections after a $151 million expansion that tripled its exhibit space in 1997.

In Chicago, the John G. Shedd Aquarium plays a key role, along with many other museums there, in entertaining convention visitors, according to the Chicago Convention and Visitors Bureau. Two years ago, its $47 million "Wild Reef" addition helped push attendance up by 400,000.

"Anytime a city opens an attraction that appeals to adults and children and offers a learning experience, it's a winning situation for the city, visitor and locals," said Meghan Risch, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. "It's a great investment for Baltimore. I hope they see results immediately."

The name alone is compelling, said Janet Wagner, associate chair of marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Animal Planet will resonate with visitors, Australia is a place most people consider exotic, and "extreme" is a hot word these days used to evoke something edgy and appealing, she said.

"Australia is a place most people don't get to go," she said. "I think the sheer novelty of this is going to be a great attraction. You're not only going to attract tourists, people from the area are going to go see it too. Tourist attractions are very important to convention travelers. I do think this will give Baltimore a competitive edge."

Baltimore hoteliers are building travel packages around the Australia theme.

The Hyatt Regency Baltimore plans a package to be offered in January that will include a one-night stay, aquarium tickets, parking and a donation to the aquarium.

"It's very significant for us," said Mary Sipes, senior sales manager for the Hyatt. "Something new such as the aquarium exhibit will draw travelers to Baltimore."

Harbor Magic, which includes the Brookshire Suites, Pier 5 Hotel and Admiral Fell Inn, boutique hotels that focus on leisure travelers, also plans to put overnight packages in place right after the opening, said Larry Noto, director of marketing for Harbor Magic.

"I think this is a big deal," Noto said. "When you're adding an expansion to an already well-known attraction, it's going to be an incredible draw. When you look at successful tourist destinations, they're constantly giving a person a new reason to come back."

Other businesses also expect to ride the tide of aquarium crowds.

"We're confident that the new wing of the aquarium will be a great positive for downtown overall, not just for retail but the whole of the Inner Harbor," said David Cordish, president of the Cordish Co., developer of the Power Plant Live entertainment district. "When it comes to attractions, more is more."

Port Discovery and the Maryland Science Center and some area restaurants look to do promotions with the aquarium in the near future.

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