With panda pandemonium set to end next month, the Toronto Zoo recorded falling attendance in 2017 — the lowest in a decade.
A new report on last year’s visitor statistics heads to the zoo board next week as management promotes one last look at the visiting pandas and their Toronto-born cubs before they leave in 30 days for the Calgary Zoo.
Attendance fell to 1.05 million visitors in 2017, according to the new report — a 19 per cent decline over 2016 and 20 per cent behind the budgeted attendance. Overall, the zoo saw a $5-million shortfall in revenues.
The report blames lower-than-expected attendance on a strike by CUPE Local 1600, the union representing workers, that closed the zoo for five weeks last spring and cost $4 million after 280,000 expected visitors were shut out.
It is “not unreasonable to conclude that without this impact, the actual attendance experience would have been very close to budget in 2017,” the report says.
The panda parents, Da Mao and Er Shun, first arrived in March 2013 as part of a partnership with China. Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, the first giant panda cubs born in Canada, arrived with much fanfare in late 2015 — causing a stir and sparking prime ministerial cuddles in 2016 when they went on display.
The zoo has always failed to make a profit, relying heavily on a city taxpayer-funded subsidy to operate each year. In 2018, taxpayers will cover $12 million — or 23 per cent — of expenses not expected to be recovered through ticket, food or shop sales.
Attendance, management says, has experienced “peaks and valleys” over the last decade, reaching a high of 1.46 million in 2013, the year the pandas arrived. But those numbers declined immediately in 2014 and 2015.
Following the birth of the male and female cubs, the result of artificial insemination, attendance reached 1.3 million in 2016.
To host the pandas for five years, the zoo paid $5 million in U.S. dollars to a giant panda conservation fund, plus a one-time payment of $250,000 for the cubs. It also cost the zoo $2.1 million to ship bamboo twice a week from Memphis for the last five years.
The zoo exceeded its budgeted revenue in 2013 and 2016, when the pandas arrived and the cubs were born, but missed those targets by millions in the preceding years as attendance failed to match expectations for sustained visitor interest in the pandas.
The five-year deal to host the pandas expires next month.
The zoo budgeted for the panda’s pending departure as part of a requested $52 million in operating expenses for 2018, estimating a revenue loss of $715,000, which is more than offset by the $1.75 million the zoo will no longer need to spend on housing and feeding the pandas, along with related research.
Budget notes submitted to the city claimed the zoo projected to meet its attendance target “due to the popularity of the panda cubs, as it is their last year of exhibit in Toronto,” along with other baby animals. Those numbers were not realized.