Facebook Twitter

Keiko’s home gears up for whale of a loss

SHARE Keiko’s home gears up for whale of a loss

It may be a case of the killer-whale blues.

Ever since the 22-foot-long star of "Free Willy" arrived here 2 1/2 years ago, millions of tourists have turned this fishing village into one of Oregon's top destinations.With the orca scheduled to be taken to its native Icelandic waters this fall, those who staff the motels, restaurants and shops surrounding the Oregon Coast Aquarium are wondering if profits are going to swim away, too.

"I think it's going to hurt," said Cyndi Gallington, a sales clerk at the Main Sail Gift Shop. "A lot of people say they come to Newport just to see Keiko."

Many wonder whether tourists will be eager to shell out the $8.50 admission fee to the aquarium once its 20-year-old star attraction has moved on to colder waters.

Who, after all, wants to pay to see regular, run-of-the-mill jellyfish, frogs, eels - all rather puny animals that never starred in their own movie?

"Potentially, we could have a down cycle after Keiko leaves," said Fran Mathews, owner of Marine Discovery Tours, an excursion boat business. "But we do think people are going to come back to Newport."

Keiko, Mathews admitted, "really helped put us on the map."

People inspired by the movie led a fund-raising drive to move the ailing killer whale from a cramped pool at a Mexico City amusement park to a spacious tank here, all with the goal of someday returning him to the sea.

By some estimates, this coastal town of 10,000 saw a $75 million jump in tourism income - including a 35 percent increase in hotel tax receipts - in the first year after Keiko's arrival. Newport, 90 miles southwest of Portland, now draws up to 4 million visitors a year.

"If they gained $75 million from the whale, then my wild guess would be that they might lose $50 million after he leaves," said Bill Conerly, a Portland economist. "It's going to be a definite hit. They are going to feel it."

Ironically, the imminent departure of the monstrous mammal has prompted a flood of new interest. So many tourists have made the trip to Newport for a last look that the aquarium has extended its hours to accommodate the crowds.

Aquarium president Phyllis Bell said several ideas are being kicked around to replace Keiko, including placing an acrylic tunnel in the pool to enable visitors to walk through it underwater to look at sea life.

"We've been planning on Keiko leaving all along," Bell said. "We're ready to move on."