A SPECTACULAR vision to make Chester Zoo one of the world’s leading wildlife attractions was unveiled this week.
The tourism magnet announced an ambitious £225m project to expand part of the 50-hectare site to include a huge bio-dome facility called the Heart of Africa.
The transformation of the city’s most popular visitor attraction is expected to create hundreds of jobs and will boost the economy in the North West.
The first phase of the construction, called Natural Vision, costs £90m and will see the UK’s only domed ecosystem completed.
Inside the impressive-looking domes, which are expected to dwarf the Eden Project in Cornwall, visitors can expect to come face to face with some of Africa’s most celebrated and rare species.
Gorillas, okapi, chimpanzees as well as reptiles, amphibians and birds will be able to move freely among native vegetation while members of the public can travel on an interactive water ride to gain views of the enclosures.
A 90-room themed hotel, conservation cottage, an education centre, a revamped main entrance, retail and dining facilities are also incorporated into the plans.
Planning permission for the first stage will be sought later this year but the entire project should be completed by 2018.
Zoo bosses also hope that by creating the largest rainforest-themed sanctuary on the continent, they will be making a substantial impact on the growing numbers of animals threatened by extinction.
It will also showcase their conservation work that already spans 50 countries worldwide.
Director general professor Gordon McGregor-Reid believes that the unprecedented plans will give visitors to the zoo the once-in-a-lifetime experience of coming into contact with life in an African rainforest.
“The bio-dome will be a huge enclosed area. Within that there will be very large natural set-ups forming our Heart of Africa project which will be an amazing experience,” he said.
“It’s the nearest thing you can get to actually going into Africa. Not very many people get the opportunity to see these large groups of rare animals such as gorillas or go into a rainforest.
“Gorillas are in severe peril in the wild but zoos can act almost as an insurance policy for these animals. That is why you need to have projects of this sort because animals are not safe in nature anymore.
“We are one of the foot soldiers in the army of conservation and we are playing an important role.”
In addition to conserving the world’s population of endangered animals, there are high hopes that the zoo can transform the region’s economy but more importantly provide hundreds of people with jobs.
Against the backdrop of the economic downturn and rising unemployment, the zoo’s ambitious project is not only exciting – it is vital.
“We already have 500 or more staff here and the expansion will lead to hundreds more employed directly by the zoo.
“People will also come into the county and the city which means a huge economic impact worth many millions of pounds just because of the zoo.
“We can build on that especially in partnership with other organisations. NWDA have been very supportive of developments and recognise the potential that the zoo and tourism in the North West has to offer which will help regenerate the economy.”
The North West Development Agency has pledged a huge, but undisclosed amount of match funding to the project.
James Berresford, director of tourism at the NWDA, said: “The zoo has the potential to become a flagship visitor attraction for the North West, improving perceptions of the region and boosting inbound tourism.
“The NWDA is pleased to have been able to assist in the development of these plans, which provide a robust starting point for this exciting development.”
The zoo – which celebrates its 75th anniversary in May – already welcomes 1.4 million visitors a year, more than any other zoo in the UK.
It is expected that number will increase to 1.6m on completion of the first phase and two million visitors per year on completion of the full project.
“The zoo already gets around 1.4m visitors a year which is quite phenomenal. We are the number-two attraction in the country which we are very proud about. We can build on that but it’s important that we do so alongside other organisations,” added Prof McGregor-Reid.
“We want people to come for long weekends so that they can visit the city and its wonderful walls, the zoo and all the dozens of venues that we are very lucky to have here in the North West.
“When you think of Florida, you can go to Disney Land for example and then to Bush Gardens and so on. We want Chester to become a real destination for people to come to and that will have a huge economic impact.”