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Asia Dive News : Aquariums make a splash in Southeast Asia

The notion that aquariums should be purely educational, aimed at teaching hordes of school children about the wonders of marine life, is passe.

Nowadays, aquariums are big business. Take for example, the soon-to-be-opened Siam Ocean World, a 1 billion baht (US$24.4 million) investment by Australia's Oceanis Group, scheduled to open on Dec. 1 in Bangkok's newest posh department store -- Siam Paragon -- in the heart of the capital.

Taking up 10,000m2 of space with a capacity for more than 4 million liters of water and a planned population of 30,000 marine animals, Siam Ocean World is already billing itself as the largest aquarium in Southeast Asia.

Aquaria KLCC, which opened in Kuala Lumpur in August, can still claim to have Southeast Asia's longest underwater tunnel, at 90m.

The Kuala Lumpur aquarium, which cost 1.1 billion ringgit (US$29.3 million), is situated in a convention center connected to the capital's famed Petronas Twin Towers. Similar to Siam Ocean World, KLCC hopes to become a prime tourist attraction for the city.

Thailand has seen the launch of two smaller aquariums over the past two years, including the Underwater World Pattaya and the Waghor Aquarium, in Prachuab Khiri Khan province.

The Pattaya aquarium reportedly involved a US$6 million investment by Singapore's Haw Par Group. Waghor Aquarium, which got off to a bad start -- most of the fish died in the first year -- and only officially opened for business last August, is owned by the government's Department of Unofficial Education, and required a construction budget of 200 million baht (US$5 million).

"One of the reasons we're seeing more aquariums these days is because of improvements in technology," said Geoff Olson, general manager for Asia of the Oceanis Group. "Old aquariums used to have flat windows; now you can basically create a room out of curved glass."

The Siam Ocean World aquarium, for example, will include a 270-degree acrylic underwater tunnel leading to a 10.5m diameter room built like an inverted fish bowl.

"So we're in the fishbowl and the animals are outside looking at us," Olson said.

Oceanis claims to be the world's top investor-operator in aquariums. The private company owns and operates aquariums in Melbourne and Mooloolaba in Australia, the Chang Feng Ocean World in Shanghai, China, and Busan Aquarium in Busan, South Korea.

Besides the Siam Ocean World, its largest investment to date, Oceanis is also constructing an aquarium in Dubai and will start building another in Seoul next year.

Negotiations are underway for aquariums in Paris, Istanbul and Prague.

"A lot of the places we're going to are developing markets, except for Paris," said Olsen. "Essentially the business model comes down to size of population and the ability of the population to come to aquariums."

Asia, with its densely populated cities and rising incomes, was the obvious place for Oceanis to start out.

The Bangkok aquarium, for instance, will charge a 450 baht (US$11) entry fee for adults and 280 baht for children, with no price differential between Thais and foreigners.

It is expected to draw at least 1.5 million visitors during it first year of operations, of whom only 20 percent are expected to be foreigners. The aquarium also anticipates 100,000 school children per annum.

Oceanis chose Siam Paragon as a venue because of its upscale positioning -- the department store will also include an opera house -- easy accessibility to Bangkok's overhead sky-train system and its central location.

"Commercially, our first and foremost goal is to promote an entertaining experience for the general public," Olsen said. "Into that, we weave educational messages and educational experiences."

Oceanis will utilize its global connections to stock Siam Ocean World, with grey nurse sharks imported from a breeder in South Africa, elephant-nose sharks from Australia and penguins imported from South Korea, but the great majority of the animals will come from Thai waters.

Source: Taipei Times