Photo by Jim Charlier
Photo by Jim Charlier

The Numbers on Garden Tourism

by / Jun. 15, 2016 3am EST

Did you know that, in the US, more people visit botanical gardens, botanical parks, garden tours, and garden events than visit Disneyworld. And Disneyland. Combined. That’s more than visit Las Vegas each year.

So I called up the guy who wrote the book Garden Tourism, Richard Benfield, the guy who published the factoid above, and started asking him questions about regional garden tours, attendance numbers, ZIP code research, economic impacts, and more. He tells me he is the nation’s leading expert on garden tourism, basically, because, there is no one else. And, since I was asking such good questions, I could be number two.

It turns out his book was the first ever published on garden tourism, and to date it’s the only book written on garden tourism. And Buffalo has two and a half pages in it.

At the time, I was a few years into my seven years as leader of Garden Walk Buffalo, which has turned into America’s largest garden tour. I was trying to figure out, through Benfield, where Buffalo stood as far as the size, scale, and impact of our tour. It turns out, there’s really nothing quite like it. 

Garden Walk Buffalo, at 23 years old, attracts an estimated 65,000-70,000 visitors to more than 400 participating gardens; 20-23 percent of those visitors come from more than 50 miles outside of the city, and the two-day event has an estimated $4.5 million economic impact to the region. And that’s each year, for the past eight years. You do that math.

The tour has also given back to the community nearly $100,000 in Marvin Lunenfeld Beautification Grants to block clubs and community groups. Lunenfeld was Garden Walk’s founder. Did I mention Garden Walk Buffalo is totally free for visitors and its gardener participants? And it’s completely run by volunteers? And even the shuttle buses are free? (Thank you, donors and sponsors!)

That’s just a two-day tour. Add in the nearly 100,000 visitors to the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens, the more than one million who use the Buffalo Olmsted Parks, the tens of thousands that attend other regional neighborhood garden tours, and busloads of visitors from other states and Canada, as well as participate in local garden-themed tours, bike tours of gardens, and our local Garden Art Sale—and you can now see how much financial impact garden tourism has on the region. 

Garden tourism is rarely considered a viable subset of tourism by most regional visitors bureaus. But when you start looking at actual data, it no longer looks like a small niche subset. We’re fortunate to have Visit Buffalo Niagara, which looks at the numbers and makes garden tourism a priority. And the PR boost of green gardens, gracious gardeners, beautiful neighborhoods, and bountiful creativity does a good job of stemming some of the rust-belt, snow-belt image stuck in the heads of the nattering nabobs of negativity out there.

A 2006 Visit Buffalo Niagara market survey found that a common thread between tourists in the realms of art and architecture was gardening. With one of the nation’s leading art museums, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House and Graycliff Estate both becoming desirable architectural destinations at the time, it made sense that gardening could be another “leg of the stool” for cultural tourism marketing. Garden Walk Buffalo, and Buffalo in Bloom, at that time, had both been operating for 11 years. The Buffalo Olmsted Parks is a world-class park system. PLANT WNY’s popular spring event, Plantasia, brings in 14,000 visitors and gets them primed for gardening. 

Over a third of world travelers visit a garden on their trips. Tour operators say that having a garden as part of a tour is a contributing factor in sales. Compared to other attractions like amusement parks and casinos, gardens as entertainment is an inexpensive option. But even botanical garden entrance fees and garden tour tickets are not deterrents to visitation—Pennsylvania’s Longwood Garden’s entry fee is $20 and it had 1.16 million visitors last year. Most garden tours charge anywhere from $12-$75 to view just a handful of gardens.

Our regional garden tourism entity is Gardens Buffalo Niagara. This group of volunteers organizes garden tourism events—like its Garden Art Sale (Saturday and Sunday, June 25 and 26 at the Botanical Gardens), specialty tours including a Beyond Flowers Sustainability in Action Tour and tour of amazing East Side garden-based projects, educational events, luxury motorcoach tours, and Tours of Open Gardens (with 75 exceptional gardens open for touring throughout Buffalo Niagara on Thursdays and Fridays in July). It also promotes all 18 regional garden tours from Lewiston to Springville, including Garden Walk Buffalo.

Under its former name, the National Garden Festival, Gardens Buffalo Niagara won the 2012 Garden Promotion Award from the biennial International Garden Tourism Conference in Toronto. Representatives from Buffalo have also made presentations at this conference. Twice. This fall, I’ll be making a presentation “Tourism from Beautiful Home Gardens” at the America in Bloom annual conference in California.

As we, locally, find out more about garden tourism nationally, we’re finding that our local offerings—and horticultural tourism sophistication—is leaps and bounds beyond what other communities are doing. And they look at us to see what they should be doing.

Get out and enjoy some gardens this summer—walking, in a car, on a bus, riding a bike, shopping a garden art sale, attending a workshop, visiting the Botanical Gardens, or picnicking and playing in an Olmsted Park. Encourage others to do the same. It boosts Buffalo’s moral, self-esteem, neighborhoods, and bottom line.

Jim Charlier is the former president of Garden Walk Buffalo, which takes place July 30 & 31.