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Thou Shalt Take a Vacation:

The Risky Business of Christian Tourism

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo


With the opening this summer of Ark Encounter—a $100 million USD, 510-foot-long re-creation of Noah's Ark, built by a fundamentalist Christian ministry in rural Kentucky, with the help of state tax incentives and the sale of $62 million USD in junk bonds—the business models behind Christian-themed destinations may require a new level of financial faith.


Ark Encounter is the brainchild of Australian-born creationist Ken Ham, whose outspoken beliefs—the universe is 6,000 years old, humans and dinosaurs co-existed, T-Rex was a vegetarian who lived in the Garden of Eden—led him and his ministry, Answers in Genesis (AIG), to open the nearby Creation Museum in 2007. At a media preview in early July for Ark Encounter, Ham proclaimed, “I believe this is going to be one of the greatest Christian outreaches of this era of history."


Financial documents released by Ark Encounter, LLC—the for-profit company that the non-profit AIG uses to run its new attraction—seem to belie that confidence. The firm lists more than three dozen risks to potential bondholders, including negative cash flow, adverse publicity, environmental regulations, bad weather, and animals in their care getting infectious diseases.


A study commissioned and released by AIG boasts that their biblical attraction will receive a healthy 1.2 million to 2.2 million visitors annually. However, an economic impact review by Hunden Strategic Partners, commissioned by the state of Kentucky, estimates that, in a best case scenario, attendance at Ark Encounter will hit a peak of 640,000 by its third year in operation and then settle near 400,000 attendees per year.


That drop-off would emulate a similar pattern at Ham's $27 million Creation Museum. Ham and other AIG representatives vigorously deny reports that attendance has fallen off, and an AIG spokesperson declined to release the Creation Museum's actual attendance statistics. But the state-commissioned Hunden report was more forthcoming, stating that “attendance figures have decreased" each year from 2007 through 2013. A feasibility study released by Ark Encounter in support of its bond offering confirms the Hunden report's assessment, revealing that Creation Museum attendance has dropped every year, from 404,000 visitors in 2007 to 236,583 in fiscal year 2012-2013 (the most recent year reported).


Drop-off or not, Ham believes Ark Encounter will soon buoy its elder sibling. In an email, he said that with the Ark's opening, “the Creation Museum's average attendance… will swell to 600,000-700,000 annually. That's because a percentage of the people visiting our Ark will also tour the museum while in the area. It's possible that the museum's annual attendance will be even higher than 700,000 if we see many international visitors."


To deal with this anticipated influx, the Creation Museum plans to nearly triple in size over the next three years. In April, officials in Boone County, Ky., gave the go-ahead for the massive expansion.


If Ham's ambitions appear quixotic, the relics of other Christian destinations, sprinkled throughout the back roads of America, reveal a sobering reality. In Connecticut, graffiti covers a stainless steel cross at the remains of the biblical theme park Holy Land USA, which closed in 1984; in Iowa, cardboard cutouts of Jesus and Saint Peter protrude from a pond outside the recently shuttered Museum of Religious Arts; and along a Maryland roadside, the steel frame of another ark, this one begun 40 years ago by a now-retired pastor, armed with $450,000 in donations and a vision from God, has sat unfinished for 19 years. That Pastor, Richard Greene of God's Ark of Safety Ministry, has said he needs another $50 million to complete the project.


In Orlando, Fla., the Holy Land Experience (HLE), a Christian theme park and church taken over in 2007 by the Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN), is experiencing growing pains of its own. The park bills itself as a living, biblical museum, and it includes replicas of a Jerusalem street market and Calvary's Garden Tomb, a rocky outcrop north of Jerusalem's Old City where many Protestants believe Jesus rose from the dead.


Over two sunny days last March, when Orlando was jammed with families on Spring Break, there was room to spare at HLE. Small groups of visitors, some pushing walkers, meandered freely through the park's gleaming white streets, fingered inspirational CDs at the Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh Gift Shop, and gathered at midday near a baptismal pool to watch an actor portraying Jesus dunk two young visitors.


According to HLE tax documents from 2001 through 2013 (the most recent year available), operational expenses have exceeded ticket sales every year since the park's opening. To make ends meet, the park relies heavily on private donations and tax breaks. In its tax filings, HLE has reported more than $90 million in contributions since 2001, and according to Florida's Orange County Property Appraiser's Office, the park's status as a non-profit has saved it $200,000 a year since 2012.


HLE representative Colby May declined to respond to specific questions about the park's financial donors. In an email, he wrote, “Each day at the Holy Land Experience scores of guests from diverse backgrounds testify to being deeply encouraged and touched by what they encounter at the park."


Ninety miles south of Orlando, in rural Wauchula, Fla., a more provincial— and impassioned—experience awaits visitors to “The Story of Jesus," a seasonal passion play performed in a cattlemen's arena with a cast of more than 200 volunteers and 100 animals. Produced and directed for more than a quarter century by a 63-year-old local pastor named Mike Graham, who also plays the role Jesus in the first act, the performance has endured as a beloved tradition to Floridians and other visitors.


Yet even this production, with its heartfelt performances and near epic scale, may come to an abrupt end. “We were in the red again this year," Graham said with a sigh. “We are very possibly at the end of our run after nearly 30 years." Three years ago, the play's attendance dropped about 40 percent and never recovered. Graham attributes the decline to their rural location, and to an increase in Christian films that hit the cinema every March and April. “People are opting to go down the street to a local theatre rather than drive several hours to little Wauchula. Still I'm not ready to quit. I hope we can hold on."


Further north near Washington, D.C., localized passion plays appear to be flourishing rather than declining, largely to fulfill the spiritual needs of one of this country's fastest growing Christian groups: Latinos.


That demand was on display on Good Friday in Langley Park, Md., a working class suburb of D.C. An estimated 4,000 Catholics marched along the normally congested New Hampshire Avenue in a Via Crucis procession sponsored by the largely Latino parish Saint Camillus, which draws attendees from nearby churches and Latino neighborhoods.


It's the largest Via Crucis in the D.C. area. And according to Jaime Hernandez, a layperson with the nearby Our Lady of Sorrows Parish and a main organizer of the Via Crucis procession, their numbers are growing. “It's an important tradition for us as immigrants. We have a huge and growing Latino community and over the years we've increased the length of the procession to accommodate more neighborhoods."


One hundred miles north of D.C. in Lancaster, Penn., the for-profit Sight & Sound theatres, which stages massive, live-action Biblical spectacles in theatres here and in Branson, Mo., has turned the corner on attendance struggles of its own. CEO Matt Neff said in an email that an aggressive expansion right before the recession led Sight & Sound “to re-think our production model to bring new shows to life more rapidly. This completely changed the dynamics and on average we have seen our ‘ministry and margin' (attendance and revenue) increase by over 25 percent." Indeed, according to figures supplied by Sight & Sound, in 2014 and 2015, the theatre company increased attendance by more than a half million visitors over 2010 and 2011.


Soon to eclipse all of these destinations—in budget and ambition—is the 430,000 square foot Museum of the Bible, set to open in November 2017 just three blocks south of Washington's National Mall. Privately funded by the wealthy family of Hobby Lobby founder David Green, the $400 million USD museum will reportedly house 40,000 artifacts related to the good book. Though that won't guarantee a good investment.


Should the museum meet its evangelical goals while remaining fiscally sound, a prospect that has evaded many of its predecessors, it could provide Christian visitors to the nation's capitol an alternative to the Smithsonian. It could also provide its creators, and the broader evangelical community, an ideological foothold in a city founded on secularism.