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Cover Story - September 2017

1709_COVER_introAs the Loro Parque group expands into Gran Canaria, Christoph Kiessling shares his perspective on aquariums, water parks, and zoos

by Juliana Gilling

All photos courtesy Loro Parque

Slap bang in the middle of Las Palmas’ Puerto de la Luz (Port of Light), Gran Canaria, stands a shiny new aquarium, a testament to the Kiessling family’s bold expansion plans for the island. The lyrically named Poema del Mar (Poem of the Sea) aquarium is destined to become the latest jewel in the Kiessling family crown when it debuts on Dec. 17, 2017.

What is surprising is that the aquarium was “actually Plan B, because our mission was to build a water park on Gran Canaria,” says Christoph Kiessling, who runs the family parks business on Spain’s Canary Islands with his father, Wolfgang Kiessling. Meanwhile, their planned water park project in Maspalomas, Gran Canaria, is still simmering away, waiting for approvals.

The Kiesslings are renowned for running two world-class parks on their home island of Tenerife. This beautiful island in the Atlantic, just off northwest Africa, has long attracted millions of tourists with its year-round sunshine, striking beaches, pretty towns, and volcanic mountains.

Wolfgang started his leisure business in northern Tenerife with Loro Parque, a well-regarded zoological park now into its 45th year. Siam Park—a lush, Thai-themed water park stocked with slides and other water attractions—followed in the south of the island in 2008. Although Siam Park launched in the throes of a credit crunch, its visitor numbers have grown from 600,000 in its first year to more than 1 million last year. Christoph is targeting 1.15 million visitors in 2017. 

Together with his father, Kiessling saw the potential for further developments on Tenerife’s neighboring island, Gran Canaria, the second-largest tourist destination in the Canaries. While scouting for locations for a new Siam Park, he received a call in 2013 from Las Palmas’ mayor inviting him to consider the capital city as a location. Kiessling was impressed by the heavyweight support, but soon realized Las Palmas’ climate was slightly too cloudy for a water park, and that the plot of land—at Sanapú Dock in the port—would better suit a different leisure product. 

Knowing there were successful precedents for aquariums in harbors, including Barcelona, Genoa, and San Francisco, it seemed like a natural step to bring one to Las Palmas. With Loro Parque group’s experience in animal-based attractions—including three in-park aquariums—it seemed like a match made in heaven.

The family is confident in the aquarium’s appeal. “We have more than a million cruise ship passengers coming every year to Las Palmas, and we have around 3.5 million tourists staying in Gran Canaria’s hotels and apartments,” says Kiessling. “We also have a population of 1 million residents on the island, so we felt very comfortable with the potential profile of visitors.” 

He is aiming for an annual attendance of 500,000 visitors at the aquarium. The island’s residents will be offered a special discount, and Kiessling is working closely with travel and tourism agencies to promote the attraction. 

Parallel to the aquarium project, the Kiesslings had also acquired land in the popular beach area of Maspalomas for the second Siam Park in 2014. But the project stalled due to bureaucratic issues. In sharp contrast, “the Las Palmas development was like a bullet train,” says Kiessling, and the family went full speed ahead.

Underwater Love

Kiessling began his planning for Poema del Mar with a whirlwind tour of the world’s best aquariums: “I flew to 23 cities around the planet, visiting 25 aquariums in 17 days in summer 2014,” he says. “We all have different orientations due to the different market demands. Europe has very nice aquariums with big educational departments and exhibits. Lots of American aquariums, like the Downtown Denver Aquarium, are beautifully themed. In Asia, the theming is reduced, but they have countless species—you can hardly see the walls behind them. Middle Eastern aquariums have a mixture of Asian and American elements, with good theming and a tremendous number of species.”

He decided the Poema del Mar aquarium should be a “total homage to nature” and a call to action to support a sustainable future for marine life: “You won’t find a sunken pirate ship or Atlantis in our aquarium. Our theming is purely natural in style.”  


Rendering of interior of Poema del Mar. (Credit: Loro Parque)

The aquarium’s sleek, shark-speckled façade highlights the 100 million sharks killed every year. (“The unofficial number is 200 million or more,” explains Kiessling, who is a stickler for detail.) Inside, the aquarium represents fish in their native habitats. Displays combine rockwork, real plants, and animals (with the exception of marine mammals) such as reptiles and birds to add life. 

The aquarium is deliberately showcasing “flashy fish” to attract and inspire visitors, according to Kiessling. The team is selecting 350 of the most remarkable species for their shape, color, interest, and “wow” factor, rather than their geographical origins. “They just have to be ambassadors for their kind and for the natural world,” says Kiessling. He wants to surprise and amaze visitors with a vivid illustration of the world’s biodiversity: “When people get out of the aquarium, I hope they will be more open-minded about nature and treat our environment with respect.” 

The Poema del Mar aquarium occupies 8,500 square meters of floor space. It tells the story of water and its role in biodiversity. Visitors will follow the journey of a raindrop, walking through caves, down hillsides, past the jungles of South America and Africa, as well as rivers, lakes, and oceans. 

One of the aquarium’s highlights is the biggest curved acrylic window in the world, measuring 36 meters wide, 7.3 meters high, and weighing 120 tons. Guests will feel like they are in a bubble, floating among deep-sea denizens, including sharks. 

“If you stand in front of a straight acrylic window and look to your right or your left, there will be people standing in front of the window so you won’t always see what’s inside,” says Kiessling. “When you stand in the middle of our curved window, you are submerged four meters inside the exhibit at its deepest point. The animals are swimming around you. It’s really spectacular.” 

Another zone focuses on saltwater shallows. The aquarium is working with the University of Las Palmas on a project to bring sea turtles (Caretta caretta) back to the Canary Islands, where they once lived. Reefs will host shoals of colorful fish and blacktip sharks. Freshwater exhibits will include giant Himantura stingrays from Thailand. Kiessling expects visitors to stay at least 2.5 hours, more if they decide to stop at the restaurants and cafés scattered throughout the attraction.

The Loro Parque company is investing around k30 million in the aquarium, but because it does most of the work in-house, “that budget doesn’t reflect the scale of what we are able to achieve,” says Kiessling. “For example, we have more than 2,500 square meters of artificial rocks, and if we bought these from an outside provider, we would pay 10 times the price.” 


Siam Park Gran Canaria will take the lessons learned from operating the original park, such as guest flow. (Credit: Loro Parque)

Siam Park: The Sequel

The Kiessling family also plans to take a homemade approach to Siam Park Gran Canaria. The water park represents a k60 million investment, but “if somebody else built this water park it would be at least three to four times the price,” says Kiessling.

“We’re not trying to do a clone; we’re trying to do a sequel to the Siam Park story,” he says. Although frustrated by permit delays—which have already cost the project some of its creative ideas—Kiessling is using the extra time to fine-tune the master plan. He is still hopeful the project can open in 2019. Siam Park Gran Canaria is proposed for a 190,000-square-meter site in El Veril. It will share its sister park’s Thai theming, and Kiessling expects it to have similar attractions. These will include a wave pool with white sandy shores, a children’s area, thrill rides and slides, a lazy river with different levels (transporting visitors via conveyors and chutes), as well as relaxation areas, all set within subtropical gardens.

“The second Siam Park will have all the experience of the first,” with added improvements, says Kiessling. For example, he wants to use the opportunity to address the bottlenecks that can sometimes occur during high season at the original Siam Park. “We are very happy with what we have done here on Tenerife; I can’t remember anything that we’ve had to erase. We will keep the same theming and our love of detail, but we will also introduce new ideas and different attractions,” he says.

Novelty and Values

Adding new attractions is a common theme across all of the group’s parks. A new Angolan lion exhibit opened at Loro Parque this year. The attraction stems from the work the Loro Parque charitable foundation is doing with the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), one of the oldest and largest environmental associations in Germany with more than 560,000 members. 

Through NABU, which is working to preserve the last wild coffee forests in Ethiopia, the Kiesslings came across the black-maned Ethiopian lion and the yellow-headed parrot (Loro Parque is famous for its parrots, which feature in its logo). Loro Parque’s new Angolan lion enclosure and exhibit highlight the need to conserve these rare cats and their endangered habitats. “Zoological gardens are like Noah’s Ark, helping to guarantee the survival of the species,” says Kiessling. “We are continuously changing and updating our exhibits at Loro Parque.” Next up will be a new pygmy hippo exhibit for the zoo.

At Siam Park in Tenerife, the Kiesslings have consistently increased capacity, introducing the Sawasdee children’s area and “Kinnaree” slide for thrill-seekers in 2012. A “Singha” uphill water coaster from ProSlide followed in 2015. “‘Singha’ was super successful for our park; our clients love it. Now, for 2018, we are planning to do an innovative new attraction for kids called Coco Beach,” says Kiessling. Coco Beach will be the third children’s area for Siam Park, joining Sawasdee and The Lost City. 


Siam Park has added high-end services, like VIP cabanas, to satisfy rising expectations of the park experience. (Credit: Loro Parque)

Meet the Market’s Needs

Expansion is important, given that Siam Park receives a growing number of visitors year after year for whom variety is important. “We have a double-digit growth rate, so we have to offer more attractions and new areas where people can hang out and enjoy their day,” says Kiessling.

Greater numbers of guests are visiting the water park more than once during their holidays, he notes. Guests are also staying longer. Meeting those demands requires some nimble footwork on the part of park operators.

“I believe that everyone in our industry is looking forward to offering a better experience within their parks. The longer people stay, the more you have to come up with new services and attractions,” says Kiessling. “People’s expectations are rising, and that means we have to make sure that we keep our quality up. We are focusing on further improving our customer service and offering a top product for a very social price.” 

People are more prepared to pay for premium products, he finds. Upcharge experiences such as Siam Park’s VIP Cabanas and Villas—private facilities that come with Fast Pass benefits and all-inclusive service in the park’s restaurants—sold out for the summer season. But regardless of whether you are buying a VIP package or paying the standard entrance price, all park guests should receive “a 100 percent perfect experience and a wonderful, unforgettable day,” says Kiessling. “We’re just trying to have something ready for each of the different monetary capacities.”

He is thrilled by the public’s vote of confidence, reflected in rising attendance and online plaudits that show how the parks’ “dedication to service and detail are valued by visitors from around the world,” says Kiessling.

The leisure industry is well-placed to welcome a growing global population of people who are looking for ways to entertain themselves, he believes: “As an industry, we have the money and the time—and we are willing to spend both—to offer a happy day out to more demanding customers.”

Eco Credentials

The Kiesslings are strongly in favor of sustainable parks and promote environmentally friendly strategies across their facilities. Christoph Kiessling is passionate about taking plastic out of parks: “No more plastic bags, no more plastic bottles, no more plastic packaging from providers—we have to force the change.”

The group’s efforts to lighten its environmental impact include creating a zero-carbon restaurant that sources food from within a 10-kilometer radius. That has meant talking to farmers, securing sufficient supplies, and creating menus based on the available produce. “People won’t buy a salad because it comes from the area, but they will appreciate that you’ve made the effort,” says Kiessling. 

Siam Park was certified a “Biosphere Park” in 2014 (www.biospheretourism.com), as well as achieving ISO-9001 and ISO-14001 standards. The park is employing practical and cost-effective water, waste, and energy conservation measures in its bid to care for the environment. These include taking steps to cut energy consumption, and using renewables such as photovoltaic power. A natural gas installation heats Siam Park’s water to a comfortable temperature during the winter months, and water is recycled to keep the gardens blooming.

“While we’re having fun in the parks, we shouldn’t destroy our environment and the planet,” says Kiessling. 


100% Effort, 100% of the Time

Striving for excellence is a daily pursuit that requires a committed team. “You can buy the best and most expensive hardware, but that doesn’t mean you’ll give the best service and a good customer experience,” says Kiessling. “You have to be on top of your game at every moment to guarantee that you’re offering top-quality service. When it comes to the maintenance of the park, the slides and the hardware, you can’t take a day off and say, ‘No, no, leave that for tomorrow.’ You have to do it now; your park has to be polished every day as if it were the opening day. This is how we spend most of our time.”

Kiessling and his father lead by example, shuttling back and forth between the parks to ensure consistency. 

“My father and I are a small team; we are hands-on. We live in the park (literally), and we are in the parks every day working on new projects,” Kiessling says. “It’s always quite busy.” 

It’s a humble understatement, given that he has squeezed in a chat with Funworld straight off a flight from Las Palmas, where he has been reviewing the aquarium’s progress. “We never have enough time,” he admits, “but we’re very happy to keep building and developing smiles in the leisure industry.”

http://siampark.net; www.poema-del-mar.com; www.loroparquetenerife.com

Contributing Editor Juliana Gilling covers the Europe, Middle East, Africa attractions industry for Funworld. Contact her at julianagilling@gmail.com