Palm Beach Zoo wins county tourism’s Providencia Award

Cute animals helped the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society win Palm Beach County’s top tourism prize Friday.

The winner of the Providencia Award is determined by a public vote, and the zoo beat out two other finalists for the annual award. Zoo spokeswoman Naki Carter says it’s hard to vote against a collection of creatures that includes koalas and bears named Lewis and Clark.

“As cute as the animals are on our website, they’re even cuter in person,” Carter said.

The zoo, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, was awarded the county’s 2018 Providencia Award at a gathering at the Palm Beach County History Museum in downtown West Palm Beach.

The award is presented to an individual or organization that plays a prominent role in the tourism industry. The zoo counted 331,000 visitors in 2017. About a third were from outside Palm Beach County.

The other finalists were Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, which operates two cruise ships at the Port of Palm Beach, and The Brazilian Court hotel in Palm Beach.

Nearly 900 votes were cast this year. Public voting took place on the Palm Beach Post’s website,

The award was presented by Discover the Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing agency.

Palm Beach Zoo faced its share of obstacles in 2017. Damage from Hurricane Irma forced the zoo to close for a month.

In a longer-term challenge, the zoo operates as a nonprofit, and paying wages sufficient to keep workers poses an ongoing struggle, said Kathleen Breland, the zoo’s interim chief executive.

“It’s very expensive to live in Palm Beach County,” Breland said.

The zoo has raised enough money to renovate its entrance and add an ocelot exhibit.

“It’s a magical place,” Carter said. “It draws people in.”

Nominations for the Providencia Award were based on several criteria: spurring the growth of the local tourism industry; showing creativity in sales, marketing, public relations and social media; and raising the profile of the county as a tourist destination.

Previous winners include Lion Country Safari, the Loggerhead ­Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, The Breakers in Palm Beach, the Kravis Center, the Norton Museum and the Morikami Museum.

The award is named after a Spanish ship that sank off the coast in the late 1800s. The crew sold its cargo of coconuts to people who planted them along the waterfront. Ultimately, that’s how Palm Beach got its name.

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