By Joe Pinsker
In making preparations for Monday’s total solar eclipse, tourism managers in St. Joseph, Missouri, didn’t know what to expect beyond the cosmic obvious. Would they be overwhelmed with out-of-towners? Even just a couple days before the event, they didn’t know. The estimates they’d heard indicated that as few as 50,000 people or as many as 500,000 might show up — quite a range for a town whose roads typically accommodate a population of about 75,000.
St. Joseph may have been unusual in the gulf between its high and low estimates, but it was not alone in its uncertainty. The eclipse’s path of totality — a 70-mile-wide strip of land where the moon completely blotted out the sun — curved from Oregon to South Carolina, prompting city officials and tourism directors of cities as different as Nashville (population 684,410) and Glendo, Wyoming, (population 203) to wonder what to plan for and how much of an infusion of tourist spending to expect. The Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation had two full-time research staff — one of them a semester away from a master’s in applied economics — who spent some time pondering that question. Glendo did not.
For a place like Nashville, the most populous city on the path of totality, eclipse tourism isn’t make-or-break. But it matters a good deal to smaller towns with less vibrant economies, both as a one-time revenue boost as well as an aid to longer-term marketing efforts.
So, did Monday meet local officials’ expectations? Based on an unscientific sampling of eclipse boomtowns, it appears that the estimates most towns came up with were a bit too optimistic. But officials said they don’t regret devoting the resources to the event that they did, and would happily do it again for another eclipse in the future if the heavens were to comply.
Perryville, Missouri, a city of about 8,500, was predicting it’d get 20,000 visitors, which had gotten bumped up from the 10,000 originally projected a year ago. “We didn’t get the influx, community-wise, that we thought we were going to get,” Trish Erzfeld, the tourism director of Perry County Heritage Tourism, told me. She’d even heard numbers as high as 40,000. In the end, she guesses without having seen hard data, the number was above 10,000 but definitely below 20,000.
Tourism representatives and city-government employees I spoke to from other cities also saw substantial but not overwhelming crowds. Clarksville, Tennessee, was prepared for 50,000 people — a number that came from the sheriff’s department — but likely had closer to 20,000, per an estimate from the city’s Economic Development Council. Carbondale, Illinois, guessed it’d see about 100,000 visitors, but the actual number, according to the city manager, was probably closer to 50,000. And the St. Joseph Convention and Visitors Bureau, which on the high end was estimating 500,000, preliminarily thinks the number was close to 100,000.
Other towns think they got closer to the mark. Nashville, with its research team, was expecting to host 90,000, which appears to have been pretty accurate. Hopkinsville, Kentucky, expected 100,000 and saw roughly that many. The 8,000 who came to Ravenna, Nebraska, fell in its predicted range of 5,000 to 15,000. Still, none of the local representatives I talked to said that attendance exceeded what they originally estimated.
For the majority of cities in the path of totality, these influxes qualified as highly unusual. Most of the local representatives I talked to couldn’t remember the last time they’d seen so many visitors. While Nashville routinely draws such crowds on New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, most cities on the path don’t. The last time Clarksville, Tennessee, put up close to as many visitors was in the wake of 9/11, when people flocked to visit family members stationed at nearby Fort Campbell before they were deployed. And Casper, Wyoming, has never had crowds on the scale of what it had Monday; even the thousands who come to town to see Elton John or the College National Finals Rodeo don’t compare.
And when so many people stop by, they spend money. Nashville projected it’d see $28 million in spending from visitors. While the actual numbers aren’t available yet, Butch Spyridon, the CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, told me that there were big lines at the city’s top attractions, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, the zoo, and the Johnny Cash Museum. “Most of the rooftop bars did really well,” he added. In cities without, say, a Country Music Hall of Fame, businesses still saw increased foot traffic. Brooke Jung, who headed eclipse-related marketing for Hopkinsville, Kentucky, went into the event guessing that its 100,000 visitors would bring $30 million to the city, and stands by that number now.
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And there were other ways of making money too: Hopkinsville’s tourism organization and local businesses sold out of several runs of “Eclipseville” T-shirts, and Jung says there’s still demand for them after the event. Meanwhile, the tourism team for Perryville, Missouri, sold about 22,000 pairs of eclipse glasses, at $2 apiece. “I do know that people came in and bought my glasses and then some of them resold them,” said Trish Erzfeld, the tourism director. The group also sold about 1,200 T-shirts, and probably could’ve sold more if they had the materials. “Being a small community, we just didn’t have the funds to put money into something that was so uncertain that we didn’t really know who all would come,” Erzfeld said.
“What cities are much more interested in is the hope of creating repeat visitors.”
But those are just short-term economic boosts. What cities are much more interested in is the hope of creating repeat visitors. Gary Williams, the city manager of Carbondale, Illinois, said the eclipse brought welcome publicity. “For Carbondale, we’ve had a difficult couple years with no state budget, and we’ve had an ongoing enrollment issue at SIU [Southern Illinois University], … [which] has a detrimental effect on our economy,” Williams said. But in his mind, a year of prettying up the town (as well as spending about $200,000 of city funds on preparing for and carrying out the event) might pay off in making prospective students aware of the school. “I think I can speak for the rest of the city staff in that we wish there were a way we could host one of these once a year,” he said.
Brenda Hagen, the clerk and treasurer of Glendo, Wyoming, felt similarly. The town is quite small — its population is just over 200 — but Hagen thinks that it and nearby parks had somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 to 90,000 visitors. While that sort of inflow puts a strain on a small-town budget — Hagen used GoFundMe to crowdfund the costs of renting Porta Potties — she thinks it was worth it. “It got our name out there,” she said. “We’re a small town. We’ve got a nice big reservoir. And a lot of people that live in driving distance of us have never heard of us.”
Across the country, most towns said things went smoothly, and advance planning had a lot to do with that. The local representatives I talked to had been aware of the eclipse for several years, and most of them started preparing in earnest about 18 months ago, sometimes with the help of an outside eclipse-planning consultant. The American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) national eclipse task force played a role in this preparation, contacting governments at local, state, and federal levels. Angela Speck, a professor of astronomy at the University of Missouri and the task force’s co-chair, told me that one of its members took a road trip across the entire path of totality, meeting with local officials in person to make sure they were making preparations.
In the end, aside from cursing the horrendous post-eclipse highway congestion, it seemed cities had little remorse about pouring resources into hosting out-of-towners. “One day out, I think everybody’s very happy,” said Gary Williams, of Carbondale, when I talked to him on Tuesday. Of course, getting a finer-grained picture of the actual effect on local economies will take time, and many towns have plans to assess their eclipse bottom lines.
That will be useful information in 2024, the year a total solar eclipse will next trace a path over the U.S. “I fully expect that many of those cities are going to be giving us a call in six or seven years,” said Peter Meyers, the assistant support-services director for the city of Casper.
In fact, a lucky few towns in the path of totality on Monday will be just as well situated for 2024’s eclipse. Will they do anything differently next time around? Williams says that while it’s too early to say for sure, he thinks that Carbondale’s blueprint only needs minor tweaks instead of a full overhaul. Trish Erzfeld, of Perryville, is also looking forward to 2024, when she won’t have to convince people how big of a deal the eclipse will be. “There were very few people [in town] who knew what an eclipse was. … Even with the businesses, it was like, ‘Why do I care? What does that mean for me?’” Now, they get it.
This story originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com.
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