Cairns Aquarium is the latest in a series of major developments helping to stimulate tourism growth in Tropical North Queensland.
The $54 million, 7800 square metre centre – which opened in September 2017 – hopes to attract more than 700,000 visitors each year to the region, generating $20 million in annual revenue.
The Cairns Aquarium and Reef Research Centre (operating as Cairns Aquarium) was conceived and developed by entrepreneurs Daniel Leipnik and Andrew Preston, after what Daniel describes as a ‘bizarre encounter’ with tourists in 2011.
More than $500 million is being invested in four major hotels that will open in Cairns by 2020, including Riley, a Crystalbrook Collection Resort (pictured).
“We were on an island in the Great Barrier Reef watching a large group of international tourists who seemed uncomfortable to go into the water. Instead, they enjoyed the amazing marine life from the shoreline,” he says.
“It made me think there was a real need for an attraction that would allow them to enjoy the wonders of the reef up close and undercover – essentially bringing the reef to the CBD of Cairns.”
The first new aquarium built in Australia since 2000, Cairns Aquarium features more than 15,000 aquatic animals, fish, plants and other organisms – housed in 71 live exhibits across 10 life-like viewing habitats.
“It’s the only one of its kind in the world to showcase the biodiversity of Tropical North Queensland’s rainforest and marine life,” Daniel says. “On display is critically endangered or rarely seen species unique to the region such as freshwater sawfish, freshwater whiprays, Jardine river painted turtles, olive sea snakes and also hard and soft corals from coastal inshore lagoons and the outer reef. That’s what sets us apart from other aquariums. You won’t see this collection anywhere else.”
A real crowd pleaser is Australia’s first “Deep Reef” observation habitat, a 300,000 litre, 10-metre high exhibit which showcases the diversity of marine life that lives over the reef’s edge and beyond the reef “drop off”. This is a habitat that, on the reef’s edge, even experienced divers won’t see.
There is also a 1.8 million litre Coral Sea habitat which features an underwater tunnel, main viewing panel and 360 degree panoramic views of the open ocean’s predatory fish, rays, and sharks.
The Aquarium’s 220-seat Aqualuna restaurant features a 13.5 metre, 70,000 litre tank with black tipped reef sharks and other colourful species.
Described as a ‘blend of education, entertainment, conservation and research’, the Aquarium sits on the site of a former carpark in the centre of Cairns.
It is already one of the city’s top attractions, averaging 1200 visitors every day. These numbers are expected to grow significantly during the busy months of June and July, tapping into the strong growth that Cairns is experiencing, with forecasts indicating that this trend will continue.
Daniel says the ambitious project would not have been possible without extensive government support, including “invaluable” assistance from the Australian Trade Commission’s Tourism Major Project Facilitation (TMPF) service.
This service provides major tourism developers with a central contact person in the Australian Government to help guide them through government approvals processes in a streamlined and efficient manner. The Cairns Aquarium was the first completed commercial project supported by the TMPF.
“Our TMPF representative helped streamline the approvals process through government by essentially acting as a referee for the project – verifying our credentials to all three tiers of government,” says Daniel, who also runs a manufacturing business in Melbourne.
“We were actively involved with government at all stages of project development and construction, so this service was a very important one.”
Daniel says the project was not without its problems. “It was sheer persistence that made it happen.”
The first plans were drawn up in 2013, with the two-year construction program commencing in late 2015.
Daniel says getting the project over the line involved creating a 300- page business plan, preparing numerous reports and submissions, and overcoming many environmental and financing hurdles.
Funding came from a mix of Australian and international financiers, personal funds, and $6.8 million in government grants. This included a $250,000 grant from the Federal Government’s Tourism Industry Regional Development Fund (TIRF) towards the very first Concept and Schematic stage, which cost $750,000.
“This grant was our first and really gave us the confidence to continue,” says Daniel. “This, and the support of the TMPF, made the process so much easier.”
"It sounds simple, but it’s true: cities with more attractions attract more people. Families want to know what there is to do in an area before committing to go there. We are giving them something special to see."
- Daniel Leipnik, cofounder, Cairns Aquarium
When construction on the Aquarium began in late 2015, the project’s tower crane was the first seen on the Cairns skyline on a private project in 10 years.
More than 600 new jobs were created (130 of those now permanent) giving the region a major confidence boost.
While most of the attraction’s revenue from ticket sales is forecast to come from interstate and intrastate visitors, international visitation from China and Japan will comprise the largest growth potential over the coming years due to the rapid growth of Chinese visitors to Cairns. However, the local community is also highly supportive. “The locals recognise my business partner and I from the media and are still coming up and congratulating us on what we have achieved,” Daniel says. “So far, we have sold more than 25,000 annual passes – out of a population of 170,000 – which is pretty impressive. It shows the locals are keen to keep visiting.”
Daniel says engaging with other local businesses is also key to the Aquarium’s success.
“We have established strong relationships with local hotels, cruise ship companies and other key tourist operators in the region,” he says. “They help us sell tickets and promote Tropical North Queensland in general.”
"Government support for a project like ours is a perfect trigger for investment and makes a huge difference when you are looking to attract partners and financiers."
- Daniel Leipnik, cofounder, Cairns Aquarium
Daniel says his primary emotion the day the aquarium opened – six years after it was first conceived – was ‘relief’.
“It was an amazing feeling, an incredible sense of achievement and joy,” he says. “We are sharing the wonders of nature with a new generation and that’s very important to us.”
As well as its aquatic displays, Cairns Aquarium also has a research centre which undertakes work on coral conservation, in partnership with universities and other research institutes.
“We are committed to developing and implementing policies, partnerships, initiatives and programs that integrate environmentally conscious practices into the Aquarium’s daily operations and convey a fundamental message of conservation,” Daniel says.
“We are also looking at sharing our aquaculture and marine expertise and becoming involved in breeding, live exports and coral propagation. This is natural path for us. It will create another income stream and open up tremendous opportunities for us internationally.”
More Information: www.cairnsaquarium.com.au