Nearly five decades after it opened as little more than a roadside attraction, the N.C. Zoological Park — now the world’s largest natural-habitat zoo — finally reached a long-sought goal in the fiscal year that just ended, with 1 million visitors coming through the gates.
“We’re thrilled to welcome so many guests from North Carolina and around the world,” Zoo Director Pat Simmons said in a release announcing the tally. “We are constantly striving to build upon our success through growing our programs and making our guest experience better than ever.”
The zoo, located on 2,600 acres just outside Asheboro, had hoped to hit the million-visitor milestone in 2020, based on record tourism spending in the state in 2019.
Then the pandemic hit in March 2020, and the park closed for three months before reopening with limited admissions. The loss in gate receipts that year was significant, resulting in a budget deficit for fiscal 2019-2020.
But in 2021, as happened across the state, visitors returned, and they have continued to travel in high numbers in 2022.
Hope for additional investment
State and local leaders have long hoped for a million annual visitors at the zoo because at that level of annual attendance, the region around the zoo is expected to draw additional tourism investment such as a luxury or convention-destination hotel and possibly a companion tourist attraction such as a water or theme park.
With those added amenities, guests might plan a weekend stay around a zoo visit, spending additional money on restaurants and other services.
To help make the zoo more than a one-day attraction, the park is moving ahead with plans for its new 10-acre Asia exhibit with hopes of opening in 2026. Later, it plans to build a section on Australia and then the Amazon.
The Africa section of the zoo opened in 1980, followed by North America in 1994.
This story was originally published July 26, 2022 9:41 AM.
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