A fish tale: Tennessee Aquarium boosts the flow of visitors to River City for 30 years

Two years ago, the Tennessee Aquarium was forced to turn away visitors for nearly 12 weeks when the Covid-19 pandemic began to sweep through the country.

Although guests were not allowed in for three months to limit the spread of the virus, the costs of maintaining more than 12,000 animals representing almost 800 species at the world's largest freshwater aquarium continued.

"We were spending $400,000 a week with zero revenue," Aquarium President Keith Sanford recalls. "It was very scary."

Even when the aquarium did readmit paying patrons, the numbers allowed to take the self-directed tours through either of the aquarium buildings remained limited during the pandemic.

But the appeal and success of what has become Chattanooga's biggest tourism draw were ultimately not deterred by a global pandemic. As the Tennessee Aquarium celebrates its 30th anniversary this month after already attracting more than 26 million visitors, the non-profit attraction is expecting another banner year as travel rebounds this summer. Aquarium officials project slightly more visitors this year than in the past pre-pandemic year in 2019 when there were about 780,000 visitors - even with fewer school groups this year.

Tennessee Aquarium

* Location: 1 Broad Street downtown on the Tennessee River* Opened: May 1, 1992* Attractions: More than 12,000 animals representing almost 800 species are featured in the aquarium. The original 130,000-square-foot River Journey structure follows the path of a raindrop from high in the Appalachian Mountains to the ocean. The IMAX Theater was added in 1996 and the $30 million Ocean Journey was added in 2005.* 2021 revenues: $28 million

"Chattanooga is a great drive-to tourist destination and I think some folks may still be a bit wary about flying, so we're expecting a very good year," Sanford predicts.

With the aid from the federal Paycheck Protection Protection program and some operational and price adjustments, the aquarium had its most profitable year ever in 2021 and managed to make up for the losses suffered in the previous year.

The downtown attraction has continually defied its skeptics since the $45 million, privately-funded facility opened on the banks of the Tennessee River on May 1, 1992.

Fishing for dollars

Since its opening in 1992, the Tennessee Aquarium has drawn more than 26 million visitors and had a 30-year economic impact on Chattanooga:* $4.88 billion - Direct, indirect and/or induced spending by visitors who said their primary reason for a visit to Chattanooga was the Tennessee Aquarium* $301 million —; Total state and local tax generated by non-Hamilton County visitors* $146 million - Annual economic impact of the Tennessee Aquarium in Hamilton County in 2021* $135.7 million - Revenue realized by area businesses as a result of goods and services bought by Aquarium visitors* 1,397 - Number of jobs supported by the aquarium’s operations and capital programs, along with spending by out-of-town visitorsSource: Report by Dr. Rachel J.C. Fu, director of the Eric Friedheim Tourism Institute.

"The Aquarium will establish us as men and women who celebrate clean water and clean air as the lifeblood which sustains us," then Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts boldly told crowds gathered on the plaza in front of the Aquarium for the opening dedication. "For decades to come, the people of this place will look back to this day and mark it as a magical moment."

Roberts predicted the Aquarium would be "the centerpiece that Chattanooga is known by throughout the world."

In its first year, the aquarium attracted more than 1.5 million visitors - more than double initial projections - and quickly became Chattanooga's biggest tourism draw. By 2005 the aquarium was doubled in size to add salt-water exhibits, a hummingbird and butterfly garden and an array of other aquatic exhibits. Consistently ranked among the top aquariums in the country, the Tennessee Aquarium has maintained its appeal even as the Ripley's Aquarium in Gatlinburg opened in 2000 and the Georgia Aquarium was added in Atlanta in 2005.

Where they come from

Among those buying admission tickets for the Tennessee Aquarium, most came from metro markets within a couple of hours drive of Chattanooga. The biggest:* 19% Nashville* 17% Atlanta* 16% Hamilton County* 8% Birmingham, Alabama* 8% Huntsville, Alabama* 8% Memphis* 6% Knoxville* 5% Asheville, North Carolina and Greenville, South Carolina.Source: Tennessee Aquarium

"We're always thinking about what we can do to make it more enjoyable, exciting and what we can do next to be better," says Jackson Andrews, the director of husbandry and operations at the Tennessee Aquarium, who came to Chattanooga in 1991 to help open the aquarium after working at the Baltimore Aquarium.

Andrews said the Chattanooga aquarium has repeatedly ranked among the top aquariums in the country in guest satisfaction and staff hospitality. Sanford said the Tennessee Aquarium has tried to remain fresh by adding new exhibits every other year to give visitors another reason to return.

"We have a new exhibit we're working on that will probably open in about a year, but we already have raised enough funds to pay for that," Sanford says of the new $1.4 million exhibit to be announced later this year.

The Aquarium has anchored the riverfront renaissance of Chattanooga, helping to grow Chattanooga's billion-dollar-a-year tourism industry with more hotels, restaurants and other attractions.

A new economic study of the aquarium prepared by Dr. Rachel Fu, director of the Eric Friedheim Tourism Institute and chair of the tourism, hospitality and event management program at the University of Florida, estimates the total economic impact on the community from the Tennessee Aquarium has totaled more than $4.8 billion. Last year alone, the aquarium is projected to have added $147 million to the local economy.