Though New York City’s Statue of Liberty invokes awe, and the Hollywood sign looming over Los Angeles is arguably its most iconic sight, neither are their cities' most visited. Times Square and the Hollywood Walk of Fame draw more tourists respectively, according to 2009 visitor numbers.
When it comes to travel, the role a tourist attraction plays can vary greatly — a monument might be one stop along the way or a national park the destination.
San Francisco is the 15th most-visited city out of 20 measured, but two of its attractions — the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Fisherman's Wharf — are among the country’s most popular. There are fewer images as stunning as the Golden Gate Bridge. What's more, the surrounding park’s size and prominence ensure that visitors travel for miles to spend time there. Even though many people dismiss Fisherman’s Wharf as tacky, its seafood restaurants, rich history, sea lion viewing and various events offer much for families to explore.
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is one of three National-Park-Service-administered attractions that rank among the country’s most popular. It is joined by the National Mall and Memorial Parks, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the only list-maker outside a major city.
“One thing that has the most potential is the national park,” says Dr. Kristin Lamoureux, director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University. She points to the just-passed Travel Promotion Act, which will create a nonprofit Department of Commerce agency to market America's tourism industry abroad. “The lesser-known parks and places — not the Disneys or Vegas — that don't have a budget of their own will benefit. We don’t currently have a branch that does that.”
In defining a tourist attraction, we considered sites of historical or cultural interest; natural phenomena and landmarks; and officially designated entertainment and recreation centers.
Also included are places with commercial areas, such as Times Square and the Las Vegas Strip; however we’ve excluded shopping malls and casinos. Well-known roads and walks were considered, but long stretches of highway did not meet our definition of a tourist attraction.
Visitor numbers from 2009 were provided by the tourist attractions.
How to lure visitors
A city’s tourism industry is dependent on various factors including safety and crime rates. Twenty years ago, the most-visited landmark in the U.S. might not have been Times Square, but since the 1990s New York has seen a drop in crime and increased tourist activity in recently sanitized areas like Times Square, where seedier establishments have been replaced by commercial interests such as M&M World and Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Despite the flagship stores and other tourist draws, the confluence of Seventh Avenue, Broadway and 42nd Street, with its dazzling billboards, street performers and lit-up marquees, is its own destination and was visited by 37 million people last year.
Along with Times Square, Washington, D.C.’s National Mall and Memorial Parks is one of the few attractions that saw an uptick in year-over-year traffic. Bookended by the Capitol on the east side and the Washington Monument on the west, flanked by about eight museums, and flowing out onto the Lincoln Memorial and World War II, Korean and Vietnam War Memorials, the Mall is also the stage for large-scale events like the Cherry Blossom Festival and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In 2009 the presidential inauguration added hundreds of thousands of people to the already crowded park, pushing it to a yearly 25 million visitors.
Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service, attributes the increased visitation to the recession phenomenon of staycations and also to something even less predictable: “Weather is something that goes into this,” he says about this spring’s Cherry Blossom Festival. “We just had two weeks of perfect weather. Probably the best weather in 10 years. It was a sea of people.” In fact, a recent study commissioned by the NPS shows that of the $3 billion that tourism pumps into D.C.'s economy, $130 million comes from the 16 days of the festival.
Except for Times Square and the National Mall, tourism to every attraction on the list was flat or down in 2009. Even the powerful draw of Disneyland in Anaheim dropped from 14.9 to 14.7 million.
However, with constant conservation and revitalization efforts across the country, Kristin Lamoureux believes that travel dollars will grow. International travel trends indicate the same; tourist arrivals increased by 7 percent in January and February, and the trend is expected to continue.
“This White House administration is interested in getting people outside again. There is talk of a White House conference on outdoor recreation that will involve the Park Service, Forest Service and Indian Affairs.”
If that’s possible, perhaps the Grand Canyon will go from the 22nd most-visited attraction to the second, making National Parks and Forests America's true backyard.