The Tennessee Aquarium is swimming, flapping and hopping ever closer to its 30th anniversary, but in the meantime, there’s another important moment to celebrate in its storied history on the Chattanooga riverfront.
This afternoon, Aquarium staff were delighted to welcome the 26-millionth guest to visit since the doors of the River Journey building opened on May 1, 1992.
The Suttle Family from Bowling Green, Ky., visited Chattanooga expecting to follow in the footsteps of millions of others as they embarked on an adventure from the mountains to the sea.
Instead, their trip was made even more special when they were surprised with a gift bundle including offerings from the Aquarium and other Chattanooga attractions.
The Suttles chose to take their girls on a family getaway to Chattanooga, a destination they’d had never visited. They spent the weekend enjoying the Tennessee Aquarium and other attractions for the first time and were amazed to get the VIP treatment at the Aquarium.
“I can’t believe this,” said Ms. Suttle. “We never imagined something like this would happen.”
Passing this milestone is a testament not only to the staying power of the Aquarium but also its generational role in bringing the public and wildlife together.
Even before ground was broken on the River Journey building, the Aquarium was conceived with a mission to inspire an appreciation for the importance of freshwater. Despite showcasing wildlife from all over the world, special emphasis was placed on the diverse, abundant aquatic life of the Southeast.
In the nearly three decades since, the Aquarium has expanded into a second building — Ocean Journey — and its galleries have consistently evolved to offer new and exciting experiences. Despite the many changes, however, its core mission hasn’t changed. Countless bonds have been forged in its halls between guests and wildlife thanks to encounters that showcased the beauty, diversity and astounding adaptations of the natural world.
The fun and excitement guests feel while making those connections have earned the Aquarium top marks in guest satisfaction and numerous tourism accolades. The most recent of these was a TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice award in 2021. The Aquarium is also enshrined in the travel site’s Hall of Fame.
Despite its global reach, the Aquarium’s impact has been felt even more strongly at home.
From the moment the iconic glass peaks of the River Journey building rose on the banks of the Tennessee River, the Aquarium sparked a civic transformation in downtown Chattanooga. The wave of development and economic activity that radiated out from the Aquarium helped to reverse the prospects of a city largely seen as in decline in the 1970s and ’80s. This revival made national headlines and served as a model that many other cities’ governments sought to emulate.
The Aquarium is a powerful economic driver for Hamilton County. In its first 25 years, the Aquarium funneled more than $3.3 billion into the local economy through non-local visitor spending, according to a 2016 economic impact study conducted by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Center for Sustainable Business and Development.
Guests who are drawn to Chattanooga specifically to visit the Aquarium, like the Suttles, contribute to the Aquarium’s $115 million annual economic impact on Hamilton County, including more than $6.6 million in tax revenue.
In the end, however, the legacy of the Aquarium isn’t summed up by dollars and cents or a list of accolades. The truest currency of its success is — as it always has been — the intangible wonder guests feel through coming scale- and fur-close to its astounding living collection.
Those moments, says Aquarium President and CEO Keith Sanford, are always worth celebrating.
“I’m so proud of the work our team has done in helping guests from all over the world to feel more connected to the natural world,” Sanford says. “The arrival of our 26-millionth visitor just before our 30th anniversary is amazing timing and an incredible accomplishment we’re all celebrating together.”