The outbreak of COVID-19 caused emergency restrictive measures to be put in place all over the world. All the non-essential activities stopped and, therefore, also the tourist attractions and partly the related infrastructure (accommodation and dining facilities) closed. Museums, galleries, castles, monuments, open-air museums, and botanical and zoological gardens were all closed. However, until this year researchers have not paid attention to the relationship between tourism and the pandemic. Their effects can be short-term as well as long-term, depending on transport regions and networks [1
]. During such crises, tourism is affected selectively, in different magnitudes and on different geographical levels [2
]. The economic consequences can be significant and in some cases even fatal—a permanent shutdown [3
Live nature and animals draw the attention of present society ever more [4
]. Generally, we can state that zoos are facilities where live animals are kept and put on display [5
]. For this reason, they are a significant part of today’s tourism and one of the most visited (paid) attractions [7
] with a more diverse audience than other collection-based institutions. Zoos can be largely perceived not only as tourist attractions but also as leisure destinations [9
]. They can be an important part of city landscape design, economic players, symbolic landmarks [10
], and informal science institutions, which play a role in education and social and nature interactions [11
]. Today, the sense or purpose of zoos is intensively discussed, mainly in a key position of conservation education and animal welfare [12
Zoos should be focused on the conservation objectives and generate revenue thanks to their great popularity [13
]. However, zoos differ from other tourist destinations because they have to take care of their animals regardless of whether the facility is open to the public or not. Furthermore, zoos by their nature are not profitable establishments but rather institutions that must be subsidized from other sources and activities. Revenue from visitors is fundamental (although in many cases, they do not cover zoos’ operation costs).
In Czechia, there is a high number of zoological gardens. Some authors (e.g., [16
]) emphasize their importance and high current status in the European context. Because of this and the relatively small area of Czechia in comparison to e.g., Germany or Poland, zoos are often located close to borders. Given the free movement of people between Schengen area states, it can be expected that foreign visitors will play an important role in zoo attendance for these zoos located near the Czech border. Moreover, Prague is one of the most visited European cities [17
], which raises the potential of Zoo Praha. The attendance in Czech zoos has been continuously rising and hitting record highs. This reflects zoos’ general popularity [15
Zoos have been a direct consequence of economic, political, environmental and cultural changes [18
] and a part of present Western popular culture [19
], e.g., location and size are connected to the time of foundation. Nineteenth-century zoos were usually up to 20 ha in extension [20
]. Differences must be viewed from the point of view of the history of zoos in a given area. Whereas many zoological gardens in the West were founded already in the 19th century or before World War II (WWII) most of the zoos in post-socialistic countries, including Czechia, were founded after WWII [21
]. This resulted in a different location of such facilities within the city and in their different size (zoos founded later are usually larger). Generally, it can be argued that Czech zoos are larger in size than traditional West European zoos. This idea can be important in times of enforced restrictions on capacity.
Surprisingly, zoos had been underestimated in tourism research for a long time [22
]. The situation improved in the past two decades, even though the topic of their attendances is not very frequently researched. Attendance is one of the most basic indicators of success. In 2019, an unprecedented number of zoos hit record highs, including the most visited ones, not only in Czechia, but also in Belgium, and the UK [23
], leading to the statement “An important aspect in site planning is to coordinate visitor flows in order to avoid excessive congestion that may depreciate visiting experience
], p. 208). This is also crucial in times of anti-epidemic measures.
Fluctuations in the number of visits are natural. An overview of various factors as well as authors dealing with this topic was published, for example, by Su and Lin [24
]. The number of visits a zoo receives is influenced by many factors—besides cultural predispositions and the attitude towards keeping of exotic animals by humans it is also affected, for instance, by the size of the population and the gross national income [15
]. Year-on-year fluctuations (as well as day-on-day and month-on-month ones) are mainly affected by the weather [25
]. That is why attendance varies geographically, e.g., zoo attendance in Europe is usually high in the spring. The composition of animals, the desire to differ from other zoos [29
], animal star effect (e.g., giant pandas), special events and new exhibits also influence attendance [24
]. Some animal houses can even experience a long-term change in their visitor numbers [30
]. Methodology (e.g., including paying vs all visitors, annual passes) can also be important [31
Other factors affect the attendance negatively and they do so on various levels—over the long term they include availability, high entrance fees and lack of time [33
], whereas over the short term they are, e.g., terrorist attacks [34
] and epidemics [24
]. Zeng et al. [35
] categorized such short-term crises into five categories: human epidemic, animal epidemic, destructive weather conditions and other natural disasters, civil strife and violence, and war or terrorism. Su and Lin [24
] highlight the importance of outbreaks of contagious disease that influence travel intentions and attendance of recreational places. They mention mainly the influence of human epidemics, e.g., severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 in Asia, which had both long- as well as short-term effects on tourism [36
]. In the Taipei Zoo the SARS outbreak caused a sharp decrease in numbers of visits [24
]. These examples are known especially from Asia. However, in Europe some zoos also had to be temporarily closed due to the incidence of animal diseases e.g., avian flu or foot-and-mouth disease. Bratislava Zoo (Slovakia), was closed for several months because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 1973 [37
]. Similarly, Chester Zoo (UK) was closed to visitors for 41 days during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001. In this case, there was a slight compensatory “bounce-back” for visits missed during the closure [25
In the spring of 2020, most of Europe’s zoos were closed as part of preventive restrictions against COVID-19. It was the first such mass closure of zoos since WWII, when many of them were (partly) destroyed. However, not even then were they closed to such a large extent. “The world has not experienced such a global pandemic before
], p. 2). The pandemic has also meant a completely new situation for zoos, including re-opening with limited services and capacity. This could be one of the key moments in the history of zoos, as it has an impact, among other things, on their economy, and thus on the possibilities of supporting nature conservation.
At the turn of April and May 2020, Czech zoos re-opened but with the restrictive measures arising from the effort to limit undesirable contact among people and to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19 this way. Animal houses and walk-through exhibits stayed closed. Classic restaurants were closed down and food and drinks were sold only for take away. Commentated feeding of animals (e.g., bird shows or training with sea lions), which normally attract a lot of attention, were cancelled temporarily. Online ticket sales were the only available possibility to purchase tickets in all Czech zoos until 24th of May 2020. The restriction of the zoos’ and other tourist and leisure-time places’ capacity was introduced [39
]. Re-opening with many limiting measures which can reduce attendance levels were put in place. Figure 1
shows in a timeline the general principles of loosening of COVID-19 constraints as well as a particular Czech development.
This paper, therefore, seeks to answer questions related to the interest of the public in visiting zoos after their reopening. The aim of the article is to evaluate if the number of visits to Czech zoos in May and June 2020 were significantly different compared to previous years and to evaluate the attendance constraints, mainly the importance of a size and limited capacity approaches. The main questions are “How did the attendance change?”, “What specific factors were the most limiting for attendance figures after the reopening?”and “What role is played by size and a limited capacity?”.
COVID-19 fear among the public contributed to lower tourism activity demand [71
]. Accordingly, this research confirmed a substantial decrease in zoo attendance after re-opening in May 2020 in Czech zoos (Figure 4
). Aylen et al. [25
] suggest the timing of zoo visits is not random and may be postponed by two weeks, but not for much longer. The analyzed closure of Czech zoos lasted longer (approx. six weeks). However, the situation in 2020 with collective closures was completely new [38
]. Moreover, cultural predispositions can also have an impact [15
]. The restrictive measures themselves affected zoos differently. Monthly attendance data show that the demand is higher in the spring months, especially in zoos situated in big cities and agglomerations where most of the visitors are locals (e.g., Ostrava). However, it is not possible to say that zoological gardens with a higher share of May attendance numbers in previous years experienced a higher decrease of attendance (Figure 3
). Therefore, we can suggest that other factors are important.
4.1. Limited Capacity and Size
The imposed limitations for zoos differed with their size (Table 2
, Table 3
and Table 4
). Data on size, however, can be misleading because of the different ways in how they are obtained. Sheridan [72
] mentions that there may be differences in what is included in the published figures. For example, in the case of a 5-hectare zoo the presence of a hectare body of water, of course, significantly affects the zoo’s capacity: but it is still an area accessible for visitors, or rather a visible area. It is unclear whether a particular published figure represents only the area with exhibits accessible to visitors or whether it also represents the car park and the grounds not accessible to visitors or, more precisely, what is an accessible area and what is not. In no way, however, does the total area size represent the usual capacity of a facility.
It follows that the size of a zoo can be considered only an indicative figure rather than a precise parameter that could be easily comparable or that should be used for establishing other indicators, for example the limit on the number of visitors. Moreover, the larger the size, the less dense the routes often are. It is the route system and its length or size that often play a more fundamental role than the size of the facility in terms of the visitor use not only of the zoological gardens, but of gardens and parks in general [73
Therefore, limits given by the facility size could be prepared in a number of different ways. In Czechia the limit was based on the maximum number of people by area size per day. However, the distribution of visitors in time varies and so does the load on individual zoos based on the size and the length/area of visitor paths. In terms of limiting the contact of people, this Czech restriction does not reflect changes in the number of people in the area during the day or the different density of the path network. As a result, too many visitors can mean a situation where some visitors no longer attend because of their desire to avoid areas of high congestion [74
The majority of large zoos were assigned a maximum number of people which they would reach only rarely under normal circumstances, anyway, so the limit did not really restrict them (e.g., the Zoo Brno up to 5500 people). By contrast, for mid-sized zoos (approximately 10–20 ha) the limit could be very restrictive because the capacity was set below the usual daily number of visitors (especially on weekends) in the same time of year. For small-sized zoos (up to 10 ha) where, in addition, the flow of visitors is higher (time needed for the visit is shorter), the limit is very restrictive and, in fact, may mean the maximum capacity was reached very early in the day. In support of this, our findings show that the smaller-sized but frequently visited zoos considered the size a factor that limited the number of visitors the most important. The limit on the number of zoo visitors in Czechia was regularly reached during weekends at small-sized zoos, where the limited daily capacity had a noteworthy impact on attendances. Using the attendance in May 2020, it is apparent that zoos with a higher probability of exceeding the limit (high level of ADV/LDC; Table 2
and Table 3
) did lose more visitors. The limit on the number of visitors was increased with effect from June 4 (it was no longer that restrictive even for small-sized zoos) and on 22 June 2020, it was lifted completely (Figure 1
In Germany the selected approach was different: most often, the benchmark used was the number of people per size of the grounds accessible to visitors not per the entire day but at any given moment [61
]. This approach better represents the visitor capacity of a facility. On the other hand, data on the size of the visitor grounds are usually not made public and the zoo has to calculate or estimate them. The Czech model (150 people/ha) was very limiting and inequitable mainly for small-sized zoos. The German model was more restrictive for mid-sized and large zoos (Table 4
), but in this case new visitors could enter the zoo during the day after the earlier visitors had left.
4.2. Other Zoo Attendance Factors
Implementing an online ticket sale, which was the only possibility to sell tickets in all Czech zoos until 24 May 2020, also posed a limitation. The tickets had to be bought for a specific day, preventing spontaneous visits. In such cases, ticket offices had to stay closed. Until that moment, most zoos had not yet launched online ticket sales, making it difficult for them to comply with the restriction [42
]. For some visitors internet access could be problematic and those who do not have a smartphone, also needed to print a ticket. On the other hand, the anti-coronavirus measures helped to very quickly implement some new elements of visitor management into practise, especially in connection with the online environment (e.g., online ticket sales or capacity displays on websites).
Zoos re-opened but not all exhibits and services were made accessible. Generally, all animal houses stayed closed. For instance, biotope tropical halls, which are very attractive exhibits, could not be visited. In addition, animal houses give visitors shelter from rain, an advantage that zoos could not offer in the provisional period. Similarly, walk-through exhibits, which are also attractive for visitors, stayed closed. For this reason, Czech zoos could see the closure of animal houses and selected exhibits as one of the most important limiting factors that could discourage people from visiting.
Indoor and terrace restaurants were closed down and food and drinks were sold only for take away. That was the case for zoos too, having an impact on their revenues. As the measures were being relaxed, terraces gradually started to fill up again and, later on, the insides of restaurants too. The limitation of the food and drink on offer was considered in the Czech zoos one of the factors most limiting the number of visitors.
Commentated feeding of animals (e.g., bird shows or training with sea lions), which normally attract a lot of attention, were cancelled temporarily. Special events for lots of people to boost the attendance used to be previously held at the weekends. These were also cancelled in the time of emergency measures with no possibility to make up for them, which can have further negative effects on the attendance in the long term. Numbers below normal were recorded at the Zoo Plasy, a private small-sized zoo that explained the drop in June by a change in the leisure-time opportunities. In May 2020, zoos were practically the only open facilities but in June museums, castles and swimming pools re-opened too. In addition, students went back to school (which was not compulsory), so zoos lost a proportion of children who could visit in May, although not on school trips. There were no school trips in June either even though schools were open again. Such a loss poses a bigger problem for zoos with an overall lower attendance than for zoos with a wider array of visitors.
The situation was not only influenced by the direct measures adopted but also by the long-term visitor structure that converts some zoos into a tourist site and others rather into a free-time destination for locals. It is the latter group in combination with a location in the city that, according to the obtained data, makes for the least impacted zoos. The impossibility for a proportion of potential visitors to visit some zoos became another entirely fundamental parameter. The main reason was the closure of borders. The results indicate a higher decrease of attendance in zoos with a higher share of foreigners on visitor numbers. In many zoological gardens, foreigners represented several tens of percent of visitors in the time before the closure of borders (Figure 2
). This confirms that zoos are important tourist attractions, not just local leisure attractions. The specificity and uniqueness of a particular zoo can play a key role, e.g., in the Erlebnis-Zoo Hannover, 60% of visitors are people living outside the city, and 87% of them have chosen the zoo as their only destination in Hanover [75
]. This indicates the necessity for deeper knowledge about the (not only) foreign/nonlocal visitors. The very positive attendance change in Zoopark Zájezd was probably the result of an advertising campaign. This small zoo could be an alternative to the large-sized Zoo Praha for some people.
Furthermore, many European zoos experienced record high attendance numbers in 2019, as they did also in previous years (2016, 2018) [23
]. For that reason, when we assess how the crisis affected numbers of visits, we should not forget that we are comparing numbers influenced by COVID-19 with one of the highest numbers ever. On the other hand, May 2019 attendance was one of the worst in the last decade, because of bad weather conditions. Nevertheless, attendance in May 2020 was still much lower. In general, the growing demand for zoos in the past years also led to an assumption that the attendance would continue to grow and that there would be a postponed consumption.
Since 15 June 2020, all the borders with neighboring countries (with one small exception) have been opened for tourism. In the second half of June 2020, therefore, the last real direct restriction was to wear a mask indoors—which the zoos, however, did not see as a very limiting factor for attendance. On the other hand, the school groups were still missing. The biggest driving force for the attendance could be again the weather, which is generally the most significant factor affecting fluctuations in the number of visits [25
]. Possible lower numbers in June 2020 can be explained by the weather—June 2020 was overall the rainiest in the last 60 years [76
] and the possible decrease corresponded to one rainy vs sunny weekend, which research data confirms. Despite this and under the current conditions, no zoo recorded numbers of visits below two thirds of the May + June 2017–2019 average.
For the whole of May 2020 the Zoo Praha reached approximately half the number of visits compared with the figures for the same time in previous years (the lowest May attendance in the past 15 years) [69
]. This drop can be largely explained by the closure of borders and the absence of foreigners in Prague, which is otherwise a very popular destination among tourists. At the end of May 2020, the situation changed. The alleviation of the measures together with the opening of the new long-awaited exhibit of Australian fauna called Darwin Crater (both at the end of May 2020), attractive baby elephants and the symbolic entrance fee of 1 CZK for members of the emergency services (during all June 2020) led to an unusually high attendance in June despite rain and even the borders being closed until mid-June. This way, for the first time in at least seven years, the threshold of 13,000 visitors on one day was exceeded in this month. The all-June 2020 attendance hit a record high and it became the month with the most visits apart from July and August in the last 30 years.
In spring 2020, the situation developed and changed every week depending on the measures currently in force (Figure 1
). The measures did not only concern zoos, and at the same time the number of active cases of COVID-19 was been decreasing. Fear of illness could also be reduced. When a new awaited exhibit opened, local visitors largely made up for foreigners (e.g., Prague). There was also a partial substitutional effect for school trips where children are also educated about conservation topics. In the future, we could not expect similar development of demand after zoo re-openings as in 2020, e.g., because of an unprecedentedly (more months) long closure of zoos in 2021. Therefore, the need to be prepared on a higher demand of a “bounce-back” is crucial.
A certain limitation of this research is, of course, that the factors putting off visitors were assessed by the zoos, not the visitors. On the other hand, the zoo staff, thanks to the nature of their job and related experience, can estimate visitors’ behavior. Only the first months after the zoos re-opened have been taken into account so far. In the long-term perspective the summer months, which make up the lion’s share of the annual attendance, are going to be fundamental. It would be convenient, therefore, to continue the research assessing the impacts on the whole season or to create a more in-depth analysis and comparison with the situation in other countries where emergency measures had been in force for a different length of time.