Fears of a downturn in the private sector economy along the peninsula were aired yesterday as being a “by-product of the potential closure of Exploris” in Portaferry.
Staunch supporter of the aquarium, Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy, said the facility “has brought so many visitors into Portaferry, Kircubbin, Portavogie, Ballywalter and the entire Ards peninsula”.
He said: “It will be decimated in that the footfall of people will simply not be around to support the local shops and businesses. That will have a shocking effect. We have even heard already some of the local traders in Portaferry saying they will have to go without Exploris because they won’t have the revenue to pay their rent and rates. But it will be felt further afield as visitors take the ferry across the lough and without it Strangford will be a ghost town as well.”
Earlier yesterday SDLP MP for South Down, Margaret Ritchie, said she has written to the Minister for the Environment – SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan – asking for him to intervene “as minister with responsibility for local government”.
“Exploris is important to tourist development and investment opportunities in Strangford and Lecale,” she said. “Through the use of the Strangford Ferry, many people visit the lough area, it is a major attraction and should remain open. Exploris contributes directly to the tourism economy in south Down, and complements the family friendly cultural tourism on offer in the neighbouring St Patrick’s Country and Lecale area.”
Owner of the Cuan Guest House Inn, Peter McErlean, said the closure of Exploris would have an impact on his business in Strangford. He estimated he could lose up to 10 per cent of current trade.
“The aquarium is the lifeblood that courses the veins of the roads around here and is a strong draw in pulling visitors to the area,” he said. “It’s a very important facility and it’s a pity we’re at this eleventh hour scenario with our backs against the wall. The reality is that work should have begun a long time ago but it can still be done and Exploris can be made more profitable. Its closure would have an impact right across the peninsula.”
Chairman of Portaferry Regeneration and Friends of Exploris spokesperson, Doug Edmondson, said people in the town are “shocked and bewildered at the proposed closure of Exploris by Ards Borough Council” as an Ards council report in 2011/12 “showed the unique facility contributed £3 million annually to the local economy, which is a five-fold return on the annual investment”.
Last night a Department of Enterprise spokesman said: “Neither the Department or the Northern Ireland Tourist Board manage or control any tourist attraction.
Exploris has received financial assistance from NITB for various projects in the past, the most recent being 2010.”
He added that the tourism minister “is always happy to meet with local businesses to discuss issues and strategies for future developments” but that “Exploris has made no request to meet the minister”.