Tierrabyte: Tracking Decades of Visits to the Missions

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Community members congregate outside of Mission San Francisco de la Espada following a church service on Sunday. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Community members congregate outside of Mission San Francisco de la Espada following a church service.

This weekend, a delegation of Canary Islanders tours San Antonio's Spanish-colonial Missions, walking the same paths as hundreds of thousands of other visitors who come  to the sites each year for recreation and public events. The Missions saw nearly 1.5 million visits last year, according to the latest data provided by the National Park Service (NPS).

You can explore the trendline of visits to the Missions since 1983, when the sites achieved official status as a National Historic Park, by using the Rivard Report's interactive charts below.

The missions that make up the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park include four Spanish-colonial missions: Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada. Along with the Alamo, these Missions were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. Each is over 300 years old.

Sites such as Stonehenge and Machu Picchu share the World Heritage designation that denotes places of "outstanding universal value," said Colleen Swain, director of the World Heritage Office in San Antonio.

For those charged with maintaining and preserving the Missions, the World Heritage designation has been both a blessing and curse, drawing important resources to preserve the historic sites but also increasing wear and tear on the Missions and surrounding infrastructure as more people visit from around the world.

"My sense of it, is that the World Heritage designation has made a difference, especially with international visitors," said Father David Garcia, who became director of what was then called the Old Spanish Missions in 2007. Garcia was enlisted to help raise funds for the historic preservation of the four missions, and the World Heritage designation has helped him make a strong case for investment to local and international donors.

"Those buildings are old, and ... tourists like to touch stuff," Garcia said. "If tourists touch stuff, it starts wearing down. One person is not a big deal, but when you have a 100,000, that’s a bigger deal."

For the first time in 13 years, the number of visits to Mission Espada surpassed Mission San José, where the park's visitors center is located, according to National Park Service data. In 2017, Espada had 386,823 visits and San José hosted 329,905 visitors.

"It’s closest to [Loop] 410, so it could be that people that see the big brown signs that have Park Service arrowheads on them. That visual recognition will pull people off the road to go see something," said Mardi   Arce, superintendent of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

The Mission Reach, a part of the San Antonio River Improvements Project, extends nearly 8 miles from South Alamo Street to Mission Espada. The project was completed in 2013, and could explain the increase of visits to some missions. The drop in visits between 2011 and 2013 could be because some parks were closed during construction of construction on the Mission Reach, Arce said.

Arce keeps her focus on catering to larger crowds, regardless of why they chose to visit.

"We don’t really do analysis on the 'why'," Arce said. "We’ll deal with them when they come. If we end up with two million [visitors], we’ll take care of two million people."

2 thoughts on “Tierrabyte: Tracking Decades of Visits to the Missions

  1. Actually, the drop that began in 2010 for several years was also partly due to the restoration work done in each church, which resulted in complete closure of each mission for a period of time of months to almost a year. Beginning with Concepcion and heading south in turn each mission church closed sometime between 2010 and 2014.

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