October 15, 2021

Economic Impact for Zoos & Aquariums

According to AZA, over 180 million people visit a zoo or aquarium in the United States every year—more visitors than every NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB games combined! That’s a lot of foot traffic, and with it comes an incalculable number of benefits to the communities who call these organizations home.

Rather, only some of these benefits are incalculable. For example, how do you measure conservation impact? (Lots of smart people are working on answering this question.) But others are quite quantifiable, and there’s one in particular that you should know about your own institution: economic impact. In this paper, we’ll explore what economic impact is, and why you should care about it.


The textbook definition of economic impact is as follows:

“Total economic impact of an organization is a compilation of the direct, the indirect, and the induced impacts generated in an economy as the result of an organization and its activities.”

But what does that really mean? To put it simply, imagine that your regional economy is a pond, and your organization is a mighty oak tree towering above it. The boughs of this oak are heavy with acorns, some quite large and others small. Every time your organization spends money (for example on a new capital project, hay for your hoofstock, or soap for your restrooms), one of those acorns drops into the water and ripples emanate from the point of impact.

These ripples spread and cause activity in the pond, disturbing water-striders and spurring sleepy fish into action. Your tree is not the only one on this pond, but it is one of the biggest and the oldest, and it drops more acorns than most of its neighbors.

Your organization is mighty. As icons of history that live in the memory of every child, zoos and aquariums have a special place in the American story. You are a gem in your community’s crown, and it’s likely that more people visit your site than nearly any other attraction in your area. And the net effect of your might is that you cause a lot of action in your pond—you’re dropping quite a few acorns.



Zoo and aquarium visitors spend money in communities that call these organizations home. Often these visitors originate from outside of the area. Locally retained sales, income, and jobs resulting from these visits represent the direct impacts of visitor spending.


Additional jobs and economic activity are supported when your zoo or aquarium purchases supplies and services from other local businesses, thus creating indirect impacts of visitor spending.

Finally, employees of those businesses use their income to purchase goods and services in the local economy, generating even more economic activity. These are the induced impacts.

The sum total of the direct, indirect, and induced effects of your organization are your economic impact, and we can measure that! But why would you want to?


Your organization’s economic impact is likely substantial, and if you’ve never calculated it, you might be surprised what you’ll learn. The mere fact that you exist supports meaningful economic activity for local businesses, jobs for residents of your community, and tax receipts for local governments. And if you don’t already know these numbers, it’s a near certainty that local officials and your supporters don’t know them either. It is mission-critical that all stakeholders inside and outside your organization are aware of the economic benefits your organization creates. They need to know.

  • If your organization is already the recipient of public support, that’s good. But is the level of support you receive on par with the positive economic impact you create in your region?

  • If you’re not currently the beneficiary of a property millage or a sales tax, have you considered that public investment could not only increase your ability to deliver on your mission, but create a huge economic return for your community at the same time?

  • Capital projects matter, too! Public investment in your site, either directly or in the form of a bond, have a massive positive impact. Do you have a plan to get public support for your master plan?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, speak to Zoo Advisors today about studying the economic impact of your organization.

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