Colonial Williamsburg, for one, reportedly draws about half the number of visitors it attracted in the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War. Other iconic destinations also face flat or dwindling attendance; Civil War sites, once guaranteed to entrance the young, are among them. As a historical moment, Gettysburg will always be the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but the battle site happens to be at a 10-year low in numbers of visitors, and far below the levels it drew in the 1970s.
Even places that depict American ingenuity in a different way, such as by telling the story of flight, show signs of losing their claim on the imagination, with attendance at the National Air and Space Museum trending down over the last 10 years despite drawing far more foreign tourists than in previous decades.
What does this say about the American story? The sites themselves are, in general, better-preserved and more thoughtfully and inclusively interpreted than ever. Armchair patriots remain intrigued by presidential biographies and curious about lesser-known events unearthed on podcasts. But when it comes time to power up the SUV, Americans are heading elsewhere, passing up the chance to experience the dramatic turning points of the nation’s past. Where once families yearned to see that history firsthand, to forge a personal link with great events, they now blow past that turnoff on the way to the beach. The American story is losing its pull.