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Henry Doorly Zoo director Dennis Pate at the construction site of the Owen Sea Lion Shores exhibit.

The ambitious riverfront revitalization projects underway in Omaha should give an important boost to the city’s already robust tourism activity. The direct link to the riverfront, establishment of new greenspaces and creation of retail and restaurant opportunities should all work together to raise the city’s tourism potential to new heights.

As part of the mix, it’s important to recognize the vital contribution to Omaha tourism by the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. Omaha’s zoo doesn’t stand still. On the contrary, it continues to show impressive vision and ambition in improving its facilities and creating new environmental landscapes for visitors to enjoy.

The zoo is Nebraska’s No. 1 tourist site, with more than 1.6 million visitors each year. The zoo generates an annual economic impact for Omaha exceeding $200 million, including visitor spending on lodging, meals and other items.

The visitor figures demonstrate the zoo’s strength as a regional tourism draw. Some 36.2% of the zoo’s 2018 visitors were from outside Nebraska — that’s more than 579,000 people. Iowa accounted for 17.1% of 2018 attendance. That’s more than 273,000 visitors. Dennis Pate, the zoo’s CEO and executive director, has rightly been mindful of tourism’s importance to the zoo as he and his team make strategic decisions for the long term.

An annual online poll by USA Today, asking readers to identify what they consider the nation’s best zoo, consistently shows the high respect enjoyed by the Henry Doorly Zoo. This year the Omaha zoo ranked No. 2 in the survey for the second year in a row.

It’s no surprise the zoo stands out, given the world-class status of its many amenities, including its cat complex and indoor desert. The zoo continues to build on its legacy. This year it completed the last sections of its 8-acre, $22 million Asian Highlands exhibit and began construction for its $27.5 million, 1.5-acre Owen Sea Lion Shores. The exhibit will open next summer.

Part of the zoo’s strength comes from the notable community support. More than 90,000 households have zoo memberships. Mayor Jean Stothert and the City Council have consistently underscored the zoo’s importance to Omaha’s economy and have provided strong financial support, drawing on keno revenues.

The Henry Doorly Zoo deserves our community’s applause as it pursues a vision to expand visitors’ educational opportunities and strengthen Omaha’s tourism economy.

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