Natural tourism still recovers from COVID crisis, with major attractions maintaining reduced visitation

According to the findings of a new poll of operators of the world's greatest natural tourism sites, show caves, rebounding from the pandemic remains difficult. There were 120.8 million visitors to show caves in 2021, a 16% decrease from a pre-pandemic record of 144 million in 2019. However, the number for show caves in the United States (U.S.) increased by 27%, from 13.8 million in 2019 to 17.5 million in 2021. The discrepancy is assumed to result from the quicker opening of tourism in the United States, as well as pent-up demand and a focus on outdoor recreation.

For show cave operators that rely on tour guides and hospitality workers, global staffing remains a concern. International employment at show caves is down 17% from 2019 levels, mirroring recruiting issues that continue to plague the tourist sector as a whole. Another interesting conclusion was that direct spending at show caves was up 7% globally (inflation-adjusted), showing that tourists who did come were ready to pay more on the complete experience.

Nonetheless, according to Dr. Jim Petrick of Texas A&M, direct spending at a local attraction is only one component of the economic effect of caves. Visitors frequently spend money at other companies in the neighborhood, such as restaurants, motels, and stores, in addition to the attraction. Because tourist expenditure is fresh money to a town, it has multiplier effects (apart from direct spending), as dollars spent at a cave may sometimes flow down to the rest of the community. As a result, the economic impact of the cave business is expected to be far more than just direct expenditure.

The International Show Caves Association (ISCA) and the National Caves Association (NCA) in the United States collaborated to examine over 1500 show caves worldwide. Respondents represented 10% of the world's display caves and one-third of those in the United States, excluding those in Southwest Asia. Southwest Asia operators have not replied to surveys, despite efforts to maintain channels of contact open. Last year's study builds on a 2020 attempt to create a baseline of the business and its effect, as well as to demonstrate the impact of the worldwide pandemic on key tourism centers. The 2022 study follows up on the sector, documenting recovery, expansion, and, sadly, closures of these rare natural beauties throughout the world.

As stated ISCA president Friedrich Oedl, ongoing capacity constraints were presenting real concerns for show caves all over the world. Some caves are still shut, while others have continuous regulations that prevent them from working to the full extent. This makes resuming pre-pandemic levels of visiting difficult.

Show caves are more than just one-of-a-kind natural treasures, as assumed by Joe Klimczak, president of the National Cave Association. They have traditionally played an essential economic role as drivers for local tourism. While some signs of recovery are visible, there's still a long way to go. Detailed findings are presented below.


In 2021, 120.8 million tourists visited show caves globally, with 17.5 million visiting in the United States. This is a decrease from the record of 144 million in 2019, but an increase from the US 13.8 million in 2019. The United States' 27% rise in tourists in 2021 is attributed to a focus on outdoor travel and a higher pace of reopening in 2020 and 2021. Nonetheless, given that 94% of show caves globally closed due to COVID in 2020, the recovery thus far is an optimistic sign of future potential for a complete recovery.

Direct financial impact

With adjustments for inflation, show caves produced $2.14 billion in direct visitor expenditure globally, with $382.1 million in the United States, a 7% and 3% increase, respectively. Although this spending just indicates income for the show caves, the impact on the communities around these places is enormous. Visitors' spending in the towns surrounding show caves benefits restaurants, motels, and many other local businesses, as well as local government bodies. The increase from 2019 expenditure of $1.93 billion and $354 million in the United States is noteworthy, especially in light of the decline in the first half of 2020 closures that resulted in a loss of 61% of income and the reduction in tourists in 2021 for caves outside the United States. It is in pace with a projected trend of visitors to attractions spending more money when traveling in 2021, which is helping to boost the industry's recovery.


40,000 individuals lost their jobs at show caves internationally during the 2020 shutdown, including nearly 3,400 in the United States. The lower figure in the United States was partly attributable to the Paycheck Protection Program, which was implemented in the country. In 2019, 69,000 people worked in show caves across the world. The good news is that roughly 57,000 of those jobs have been restored (including 7,600 in the United States), but recruiting remains difficult, with two-thirds of respondents reporting having more vacancies than candidates.

The survey respondents came from 195 nations spread over six continents, including Europe, Asia, Oceania, North and South America, and Africa. A diverse variety of government-owned and privately operated exhibition caves participated, with visiting numbers ranging from zero (caves that are yet unable to open owing to local constraints) to over 500,000.