The number of people who visited Gateway Arch National Park jumped by 41% from 2021 to 2022, continuing a trend toward prepandemic levels but still at least 22% below them.
About 1.62 million people visited in 2022, compared with about 1.15 million the year before, according to National Park Service figures released this week.
The park, which reopened its visitor center and grounds in July 2018 after a massive $380 million overhaul, still has a ways to go. In 2019, it welcomed 2.1 million visitors. In the late 1990s, the park regularly welcomed about 3.5 million visitors a year.
In 2016, 1.2 million visitors came to the Arch — then the lowest number recorded by the National Park Service since 1965, the year the final piece of the monument was put in place.
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Overall attendance at national parks has increased by more than 5% between 2021 and 2022, from 297 million to nearly 312 million.
The renovations were partly designed to attract more visitors to the monument and further connect the grounds to downtown St. Louis. A land bridge now connects the grounds to the Gateway Mall.
Just over 486,000 visitors came in 2020, when the visitors center and monument, like many attractions, were forced to shut down because of the pandemic. Federal rules governing visitation to the Gateway Arch were at times stricter than other attractions in the area. In 2019, the Gateway Arch closed for about a month during a partial federal shutdown.
Still, having a 41% increase is “incredibly encouraging,” according to Ryan McClure, executive director of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation, its philanthropic and conservancy partner. And the year is off to a good start, too.
January saw the highest number of tram riders to the top of the Arch in 17 years, park officials said. And they’re looking forward to spring break and summer tourist season.
“We are thrilled to welcome people back,” said Pam Sanfilippo, the program manager for museum services and interpretation with the Arch. They’re welcoming school groups who couldn’t visit during the pandemic, and tickets to the ride to the top of the Arch sometimes sell out. “We finally feel like we’re on our way back to normal.”
Even though it’s been five years since the new visitor center opened, Sanfilippo still feels like in many ways people weren’t aware of the project. “You know, living in St. Louis almost all my life, it’s kind of like, talking with friends, they’ll say, ‘I still haven’t gone down to see the new exhibits.’ But on the other hand I get it — there are so many other things going on.”
Bi-State Development, which operates the Gateway Arch tram and riverboat rides, has a regional marketing campaign in the works for the museum experience. It also plans to improve visibility for parking.
As part of the renovations to the grounds, a parking garage between the north leg of the Gateway Arch and Laclede’s Landing was torn down. A garage wasn’t built as part of the renovations, and planners pointed visitors to street and other garage parking downtown.
Arch officials also saw increased numbers at foundation-organized events, including the Blues at the Arch Festival and Winterfest. The Blues at the Arch Festival was virtual for two years before attracting almost 9,000 people last August, and Winterfest participation increased by 46% from last year, from about 26,000 to 38,500 people.
The national park also includes the Old Courthouse, which closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic, and has remained closed due to $24.5 million in renovations that started earlier this year. The work is expected to last about 18 to 20 months. The attendance numbers at the Old Courthouse are included in overall figures.
McClure, of the foundation, says the city benefited from development projects like Ballpark Village, the CityPark soccer stadium and St. Louis Union Station, and pointed out residential projects at Laclede’s Landing and the AT&T building.
“I truly believe that it’s an all boats rise situation,” said McClure. “We’ve definitely benefited from the energy of those developments, and I’d like to think that those developments have benefitted from our energy at the Arch.”
And while he’s aware that downtown faces challenges with crime and traffic issues, he’s focused on what his team can control, which is the visitor experience. They’re also moving to expanded offices downtown later this year.
“We believe in downtown and believe in its recovery,” he said.