The Christian Tourism Industry Is Having a Rough Year
When it comes to old-fashioned clean fun, Americans just don’t seem to be interested in Jesus as much these days.
The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, has multiple attractions on its property, including tours of a replica Holy Land, a 67-foot tall hilltop statue of Christ, and several museums. But the main attraction is their play based on the last days of Christ, which features more than a hundred performers, live animals, and pyrotechnics. The show culminates with (mild spoiler alert) Jesus ascending to the heavens with the aid of a concealed wire rig.
When I attended a performance of the show last September, the crowd was sparse. My rough headcount put it at around 250 people in the show’s 4,000 capacity amphitheater. Kent Butler, the attraction’s Director of Operations (who also plays Jesus in the show), told me that they were down about 33 percent in attendance from 2019 to 2020. “I think the lowest show we had was 150 people and the highest show was probably somewhere around 750-800,” he said, adding that, in a typical year, they get at least 600 people for each performance.
Ticket sales are also down at BibleWalk, a Christian wax museum in Ohio that you may already be familiar with, thanks to its viral turn a few years ago when it was revealed that several of their scenes feature recycled celebrity wax figures, including a Tom Cruise Jesus and a Prince Charles Abel.
Julia Mott-Hardin, the museum’s director, told me she hadn’t yet totaled up visitor numbers from last year, but that there had been a significant drop from the year before. “The motor coach industry really took a great hit with the pandemic,” she said. “So we lost all of our motor coaches. And that was a very big outreach for us.”
Mott-Hardin was, however, keen to note that she still saw last year as a success for her museum. “We have taken a financial hit,” she said. “But finances aren’t our main goal. Our main goal is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with people.” Another Christian wax museum, the Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens, that's been operating in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for over 50 years, wasn’t so lucky. It closed its doors for good in December after its lease was bought out by a neighboring secular attraction. (It’s unclear if the closure was directly related to loss of business due to the pandemic, and an email requesting comment went unreturned.)
Even before the pandemic, many of these attractions were struggling.
Pre-COVID, the Great Passion Play was already performing well below when it was at its most popular. According to Butler, the attraction saw over a quarter of a million visitors in 1992. “When we were at our greatest amount of attendance, we were selling out 4,000-plus tickets to the show,” he said. Now the show brings in between 45,000 and 50,000 people in a normal year, according to Butler. On the night I attended, the man introducing the performance told the crowd the attraction was $2 million in debt, and asked that we consider donating to help get them out of the hole.
The Holy Land Experience is probably the closest thing America has to a Christian Disney World. Located in Orlando, about 20 minutes from the actual Disney World, the 15-acre theme park features replicas of Jerusalem landmarks, Bible-themed mini golf, and a variety of stage shows and live performances. Or at least it did until January of last year, when the attraction’s owners announced they would be laying off most of their staff, and permanently canceling all live entertainment.
The announcement came at the end of a long period of financial struggle. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the attraction’s deficit rose from $1.37 million to $10.1 million between the years of 2012 and 2016, before going down to $5.2 million the following year. Between 2013 and 2018, ticket sales fell from $9.4 million to $5.5 million.
The park is currently closed due to the pandemic, and the owners are reportedly considering selling to developers who would turn the site into a strip mall and apartment complex.
If the Holy Land Experience does permanently close, it certainly won’t be the first major Christian attraction to have done so.
Heritage USA, a theme park in South Carolina that featured rides, a skating rink, and what was, apparently, then the world’s largest wave pool closed in 1989. Dinosaur Adventureland, a small Creationist theme park in Pensacola, Florida, shuttered in 2006. As did Bible Land in Yucaipa, California in 1994, and the Trinity Broadcasting Network visitor center in Costa Mesa, California, in 2017. Christian theme parks that have been announced in Tennessee, California, and South Carolina have failed to materialize at all.
“I have sadly seen Christian attractions fail because of the lack of interest, and my heart breaks over that,” said BibleWalk’s Mott-Hardin. “Just a few years ago, we were really one of three major [Christian wax museums.] There was BibleWalk, Christ in the Smokies, and [the Life of Christ Museum] in Portugal. Now Portugal has closed, and [Christ in the Smokies] just had to close. So that leaves us.”
Dennis L. Speigel, a theme park consultant that was part of the team that handled the closure of the Heritage USA theme park, thinks that many Christian attractions are a hard sell in this country because they’re simply not as exciting as non-religious ones. “Some of the greatest stories in the world are in the Bible,” he said. “And if you could leverage the stories through the technologies that are available today, versus what it was 30 or 40 years ago, I really think you could have a very, very interesting attraction. The rolling mass of the stone, the walking on water—I don’t think the technology has ever matched up with the story.”
Indeed, while many of these attractions are referred to as theme parks, they tend to lack the features that make regular theme parks so popular. None of the Christian attractions in this country have rides, beyond the sorts of things you might find in some shopping malls or casinos (ice rinks, zip lines, VR or 3D movies, etc.) There’s no roller coaster ride through heaven. No Hell-themed drop ride. No Jonah and the whale log ride.
Speigel thinks this was an especially big issue for the Holy Land Experience, due to its close proximity to so many other attractions. “When people are [in Orlando] who have a limited amount of time, are they going to devote a half a day of their schedule to visit an attraction of that nature? Or are they going to go to the Universal or Disney properties?” he said.
Hemant Mehta, a writer that runs the blog Friendly Atheist, believes this lack of thrills means Christian attractions tend not to possess the type of return appeal required for them to be truly successful.
He cites Ark Encounter, a $100 million Noah’s Ark-themed theme park in Kentucky that’s mostly taken up by exhibits on creationism, as an example. “There’s no updating to creationism,” said Mehta. “Even if you believe everything [that’s on display at the park,] there’s no reason to go back again because what are you going back to visit for? […] It’s not like they’re going to present new evidence next month.”
While Ark Encounter, in non-COVID years, has certainly sold a lot of tickets—827,591 in 2018, 897,189 in 2019, according to tax records reported on by Mehta’s blog—those numbers are pretty far below the 1.4 - 2.2 million annual visitors the Ark’s operators predicted they would be pulling in before they opened. (A representative for Ark Encounter told me that the numbers reported by Mehta are not representative of the total number of people that have visited, as the tax figures don’t include annual pass holders and children under 10, who are able to visit the Ark without paying. They declined to provide actual attendance figures. They also noted that they recently expanded with a new VR attraction.)
It should be noted that there are some Christian attractions that seem to do well. Though COVID has forced them to reduce their audience capacity, the owners of Sight & Sound, a Christian theater with locations in Pennsylvania and Missouri, say they were attracting 1.5 million visitors annually and selling out shows. The Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington, D.C., saw approximately a million visitors in each of the two non-pandemic years it’s had since it opened in 2017 (though, as with Ark Encounter, that’s substantially lower than the 3 million visitors the museum predicted they would receive in their first year of operation).
One obstacle Christian attractions may continue to face in the future is that their base of potential customers is shrinking. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that 65 percent of American adults described themselves as Christian, 12 percentage points lower than a decade earlier. During that same period, the number of American adults identifying as either agnostic, atheist, or “nothing in particular,” rose from 17 percent to 26 percent, a trend that’s predicted to continue.
Yet Mott-Hardin, of the Christian wax museum in Ohio, thinks there will always be a market for attractions like hers. “The culture is changing,” she said. “But the power of the word of God—it’s unchangeable. And when people come into contact with that word, that power is going to shoot through them more than if you picked up an electric wire.”