Months after SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment ended its orca-breeding program amid pressure from animal rights activists, company officials announced Tuesday that they will help develop in Abu Dhabi the first new SeaWorld park without orcas — and the first outside the United States.
SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby told The Associated Press that the Abu Dhabi park is an important step for the theme park company's move away from orcas, which long were company icons. The captive orcas have been the focus of blistering campaigns against SeaWorld by animal rights activists.
Officials with SeaWorld and Abu Dhabi-government-backed Miral Asset Management said the SeaWorld park will open in 2022 in Abu Dhabi's Yas Island, a man-made island that is fast becoming a tourism and entertainment hub near the southeast tip of the Arabian peninsula.
The Abu Dhabi location will have a research, animal rescue and rehabilitation center, which will open ahead of the park, and the theme park will focus on educating visitors about ocean conservation, officials said. The two companies had been in talks since 2011 about a park in Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates.
SeaWorld ended its innovative orca-breeding program in March after years of declining attendance and pressure from activists following the 2013 release of the critical documentary "Blackfish." The documentary chronicled the life of Tilikum, an orca that killed a SeaWorld trainer during a performance in Orlando in 2010, and the movie implied that killer whales become more aggressive in captivity.
"This gives us a chance to position the new SeaWorld in a very strong way, repositioning it from a company that's only about certain species to a company that is focused on ocean health," Manby said.
The project is to be built and operated by the Abu Dhabi-government-backed developer, and SeaWorld will license its brand and provide expertise in animal care. The project is in the early stages of design, and company officials weren't releasing details about its size, costs or types of attractions.
The Abu Dhabi location will have thrill rides and aquariums but it also will use 3-D mapping and virtual-reality technologies that immerse visitors in virtual scientific expeditions or deep-sea dives, said Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Miral's chairman.
"We are going to be investing all the capital but the expertise and the insight that SeaWorld is putting in this project from day one is going to be critical," he said.
Miral is betting that visitors from the Middle East, Asia and eastern Europe will come to Yas Island for the new attraction, said Khalifa Al Mubarak.
The island is already home to the emirate's Formula 1 track and the Ferrari World theme park. Miral earlier this year agreed to develop a Warner Bros. branded theme park on Yas Island. Abu Dhabi's pursuit of theme park projects follows efforts by nearby Dubai, the UAE's biggest city and commercial hub, to build multiple theme parks of its own in as it prepares to host the World Expo in 2020.
"Abu Dhabi is going to be a major tourist destination, not just in the Arab world, but the world," Khalifa Al Mubarak said.
Since the release of "Blackfish," SeaWorld has undergone a management shakeup and currently is in the middle of cost-cutting efforts. Last week, the company announced it was eliminating 320 jobs across its 12 parks.
Manby said the vast majority of positions were behind-the-scenes jobs.
"It really positions SeaWorld for the future in the right way," Manby said. "This is the right time to do it as we are pivoting the brand in a new direction."
Adam Schreck in Dubai contributed to this report.
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