Tourism as a big money industry is a 20th century invention. Yes, people have traveled for learning and leisure for millennia, but for much of human history, those travelers were the wealthy aristocrats of their societies. The average person in the Western world did not get an opportunity to travel at all until the 19th or 20th centuries. And it’s only been in the last few decades that average folks in non-Western countries such as China have been able to go on holidays. Tourism just wasn’t really “a thing” before trains, automobiles and, especially, cheap air travel. But even though the tourism industry as we know it today is a relatively nascent business, it has still changed considerably over the years.
There are seaside cities that people used to flock to every summer, yet are now largely empty husks of their once great selves. There were wonderful buildings that used to attract folks from all over that now no longer even exist. There were natural wonders that used to inspire people but that have since been degraded either by time or by us ourselves. And there is an ever growing list of abandoned, old amusement parks. This list covers them all; here are 20 once-popular destinations that would be lucky to have any visitors at all today. If they still even exist to receive visitors, that is.
20 Disney's River Country and Discovery Island, Bay Lake, Florida
We know Disney as an unstoppable juggernaut that can do no wrong, at least in a business sense. But
it hasn't always been smooth sailing for Disney Resorts.
Disney’s River Country and Discovery Island are the only two Disney Parks to have ever shut their doors. Both were part of Walt Disney World Resort in Bay Lake, Florida. River Country (1976-2001) was a water park and Discovery Park (1974-1999) was more or less a zoo. River Country was outcompeted by other, bigger Disney Water parks Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Discovery Island was largely supplanted by Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Both parks remain, physically, having never been demolished.
19 The Crystal Palace, London
The Crystal Palace was a cast-iron and plate-glass palace built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. The Crystal Palace was home to more than 14,000 exhibitors in its 990,000 square feet of space. The Victorian structure was designed by architect Joseph Paxton and constructed at a cost of £2 million. No small beans in 1851. The Palace was then re-located at great cost to south London in a wealthy suburb. Crystal Palace gave its name to the surrounding area and lives on in the name of English Premier League football club Crystal Palace F.C. Unfortunately, the physical palace was destroyed by a fire in 1936.
18 The Salton Sea, Southern California
The Salton Sea is a shallow, saline, endorheic rift lake. Which is to say, it’s essentially a big salty puddle.
The Salton Sea was accidentally created in 1905 when engineers tried to dam the Colorado River for the purposes of irrigation. But they got more water than they bargained for and all the water pooled in the depressed dry lakebed of the Salton Sink.
But by the 1950’s this was a happy mistake as several resort towns popped up around the lake and people from all over SoCal would holiday there. Sadly, one of the main tributaries to the Salton Sea was agricultural runoff, so the lake quickly filled up with pollutants. The pollution plus the increasing salinity of the lake just made it gross and smelly. The US Geological Survey describes the smell as "objectionable", "noxious", "unique", and "pervasive". Not a great tourism slogan.
17 Gulliver’s Kingdom, Kamikuishiki, Japan
Apparently somebody in Japan once had the idea to build a whole theme park based around the novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. The novel is popular with kids and adults alike, and has been for centuries, so I guess it made some sense. The park focused mostly on Book One of the novel, Lilliput. It even had a 45-metre version of Lemuel Gulliver, tied to the ground at the foot of Mount Fuji. It had just about everything you’d want from a Lilliputian amusement park. Except one thing: visitors. Some have blamed the park’s location as it is right next to Aokigahara, a spooky forest with a sad history. Or maybe the park owners just overestimated the appeal of 18th century Anglo-Irish literature to Japanese children.
16 Atlantic City, New Jersey
As anybody who has seen HBO’s Boardwalk Empire will know, Atlantic City, New Jersey, was once a very important town. Train travel allowed local tourism to take off in the early 20th century, and Atlantic City became the seaside resort town in the northeast. It was also one of the few American cities that was seemingly immune to prohibition. Atlantic City began to decline after WWII. The increasing popularity of personal automobiles meant that fewer people were staying for multiple nights and
with the innovation of commercial air travel, Atlantic City quickly lost ground to southern locations such as Miami, Orlando, and Myrtle Beach.
In a bid to reinvigorate the city, the State of New Jersey legalized gambling there in 1976, but after a brief bump in fortunes, the decline has set in again.
15 Wedding Cake Rock, New South Wales, Australia
Wedding Cake Rock, named such because of its bright, white appearance, was always a popular spot for photographers, both amateur and professional. But Royal National Park, the home of Wedding Cake Rock, saw a dramatic increase in visitors in 2015. What was once about 2,000 visitors/month became 10,000 after the area became a popular IG spot for would-be daredevils to snap a pic of themselves hanging off the rock’s edge and the like. At least one person lost their life falling off the photogenic cliff. A temporary fence was installed in May, 2015 but that was not enough. The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service conducted a geotechnical assessment of Wedding Cake Rock.
Not only is the rock not stable enough to support 30 people standing on it, it can’t support itself! The assessment found that Wedding Cake Rock will likely collapse within a decade.
14 Tequendama Falls, Colombia
Tequendama Falls is a 132 meter (433 foot) high waterfall of the Bogotá River that is 32 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of the Colombian capital, Bogotá. Several hotels sprang up nearby, including the spectacular Hotel del Salto, constructed in 1923. Built with impressive French architecture, the hotel now stands empty. Why was the hotel abandoned? Well, it needed restoration in the 1950's, but the hotel couldn't afford that due to dipping patronage. Why were tourists staying away? Well, Tequendama Falls is directly downstream of Bogotá and Bogotá never bothered to treat its sewage before dumping it into the river. The river then became disgusting. The hotel is now being restored into a museum and if Bogotá ups its sewage treatment, the falls could rebound.
13 Sutro Baths, San Francisco
On its opening day of March 14, 1896, the Sutro Baths was the largest indoor swimming complex in the world. It was built by San Francisco’s millionaire mayor, Adolph Sutro. Its seven different temperature seawater pools could accommodate up to a staggering 10,000 swimmers. The Sutro Baths also housed a natural history museum. To Sutro’s credit, he wanted to keep the Baths affordable for the average San Franciscan, but the Baths never turned a profit.
Decades later, as attendance sagged, some pools were converted into ice rinks but with the Great Depression and an increase in the cost of public transportation, attendance continued to decline. Sutro’s grandson sold the property in 1952 and the new owners added a waterfall and an arcade. But to no avail. The Sutro Baths closed in 1966 and burned down (suspiciously) two years later. The remains still exist.
12 Spreepark, Berlin
Berlin is an urban explorer’s dream. Berlin is a big, safe, modern city, with great tourist infrastructure. But it is also littered with abandoned places, factories, even an old airport. This is largely because of Berlin’s unique history that saw it split into two cities for over four decades: the Democratic West and the Communist East. Many businesses in East Berlin failed to make the transition from a communist economy to a capitalist one. Spreepark, a once bustling amusement park, was among those casualties. The city bought the long-abandoned Spreepark back in 2014 and for a while they were running tours of the old grounds, though it’s not clear if this is still the case.
11 Porcelain Tower of Nanjing
In 2015, the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing opened to the public. It is owned by the city but it required a billion yuan donation from a businessman to be built.
It is very impressive and cool, except...it’s definitely not made of porcelain, but rather, steel.
So why the name? It is called such because it is a replica of a historical Porcelain Tower of Nanjing. The original was 79 meters (260 feet) tall and had a golden pineapple on top. It was built by the Ming dynasty way back in the early 1400's and stood for centuries. It was sadly destroyed in the 1850’s during the Taiping Rebellion.
10 The New York Hippodrome, New York
Hailed as the largest theater in the world when it opened in 1905, the New York Hippodrome featured a 100-foot-by-200-foot (30.5m X 61m) stage and could seat up to 5,300.
The massive Midtown Manhattan theater played host to the biggest acts of the time. Despite its initial success, the owners had trouble generating enough revenue to cover the huge construction costs.
After just 17 years, the owners felt a change was needed and refashioned the Moorish-style building into a vaudeville theater. Only five years after that, it became a movie theater, and after that, an opera house, and then finally a sports arena. Much like many of the American buildings on this list, the Great Depression dealt a mighty blow and the Hippodrome was demolished in 1939 to make way for a far less impressive office building and parking garage.
9 The Poconos
Many of the patrons in the finer seats of the Hippodrome probably summered in the Poconos. The Poconos Mountains are a mountain range in Northeastern Pennsylvania. They were a popular resort spot for people in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. The economic trajectory of The Poconos is similar to Atlantic City as well as the summer resorts of the Catskills, which were particularly popular among Jewish New Yorkers. The first resorts in The Poconos opened up in 1901 and, facilitated by train and later automobile travel, the area became quite popular.
By the 1960’s it rivaled Niagara Falls as a honeymoon destination. But cheap air travel and an eroding middle class have hurt the Poconos economically.
8 Royal Opera House of Valletta, Malta
The Royal Opera House of Valletta was as unlucky as it was beautiful. Designed by architect Edward Middleton Barry and opened in 1866, the Royal Opera House was Valletta’s most iconic landmark...for six years. The opera house’s lifespan was cut short by a fire. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it was rebuilt four years later. Its second life lasted longer but still, tragedy was unavoidable. Today, a few columns remain on the corner of Strada Reale, forming a backdrop for the open-air Royal Piazza Theatre, which was opened up within the ruins in 2013.
7 Six Flags New Orleans
We probably all know the story here. Six Flags New Orleans (SFNO) opened on May 20, 2000, as Jazzland. Six Flags purchased it in 2002 and renamed it the following year. It was never very profitable as it lay in East New Orleans, far from most tourist spots. Nevertheless, it was the biggest theme park in the New Orleans area, with 21 rides.
Then Hurricane Katrina happened. SFNO sits on a low lying level of land, so the damage was particularly extensive. Six Flags dealt with insurance claims for years. In 2009, the City of New Orleans fined Six Flags $3 million and ordered them to vacate their lease. The City has heard several proposals for the land, but the decaying amusement park remains.
6 Coco Palms Resort, Wailuā, Kauaʻi, Hawaii
The Coco Palms Resort in Hawaii was once hugely popular. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame was that it was the setting for the Elvis Presley film Blue Hawaii. The hotel actually sits on disputed land as it was once ancient Hawaiian royal property. The Coco Palms opened in early 1953 and had good Hollywood connections. It was a popular site for weddings. But, much like SFNO, the Coco Palms Resort met its fate via hurricane. It has been abandoned since Hurricane Iniki hammered the grounds in 1992. There are talks of it being redeveloped, but as of now, it lies deserted.
5 Guairá Falls, Paraguay/Brazil
The Guairá Falls were a series of massive waterfalls on the Paraná River along the border between Brazil and Paraguay. The total height of the falls was about 114 meters (375 feet), while the largest individual cataract was 40 meters (130 feet) high. The roar of the plunging water was said to be heard from 30 kilometers (20 miles) away! While it’s impossible to be exact today, the Guairá Falls’ flow rate was among the highest in the world. As you can imagine, it was quite the tourist attraction.
But what, you may ask, can destroy a great big waterfall? Humans. Humans can destroy a waterfall by damming it. In 1982, the Brazilian government dammed the Paraná river to create the Itaipu Dam reservoir for hydroelectric purposes.
4 Craco, Italy
Craco once rivalled Naples as the most advanced city in Southern Italy. But the town hit a streak of bad luck like you wouldn’t believe. Settlement of the area goes as far back as the 8th century BCE, but the town’s name can be traced back to 1060 CE. Craco was a major player in Southern Italy in the Renaissance and early modern periods. Then the hard times started.
First there were consistently bad crops which caused massive emigration around the turn of the 20th century. In 1963, a gargantuan landslide forced out many of the residents. Then there was a flood. And then an earthquake in 1980, after which even the most stubborn stragglers gave up and left.
Ironically, Craco has recently resurrected its status as a tourist attraction as some are interested in seeing an Italian ghost town.
3 Blackpool, England
In some respects, Blackpool is the British Atlantic City. Blackpool stands out as the prime example of the rise and fall of English seaside resort towns. A growing middle class, an expanding rail system, and then the popularity of personal automobiles all helped to make Blackpool a popular resort town for people living further inland in Lancashire and northwest England.
Blackpool began attracting a great number of tourists way back in the 1840’s thanks to the railway. But, like with all the aforementioned resort towns, cheap commercial air travel has done a number on Blackpool.
Why you would you holiday in Blackpool when you can go to Marbella, Madeira, or Mallorca for nearly the same price? Though Blackpool’s status as a preeminent tourist destination has waned, it still attracts a decent number of tourists every year.
2 Heritage USA, Fort Mill, South Carolina
Heritage USA opened in 1978. It was the pet project of Pentecostal televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Heritage USA was a sprawling compound that occupied 2300 acres, bigger than Disneyland. 25 times bigger. But Heritage U.S.A. had more than just rides; it had campgrounds, hotels, and even condominiums, all with a conservative Christian message. And it was popular. Its six million visitors it received in 1986 was enough to make it the third most popular theme park in the country.
A year later, things fell apart. Bakker was found guilty of twenty-four charges of fraud and conspiracy. Then, just for good measure, a hurricane in 1989 destroyed some of Heritage USA and it closed for good.
1 Chacaltaya Glacier, Bolivia
17,400 feet (5304 meters) up in the Andes mountains of Bolivia, you will find a massive and beautiful glacier. Or, at least, you would have 20+ years ago. Now, you’ll mostly just see mud. The Chacaltaya Glacier was once one of Bolivia's top tourist attractions. It was of particular interest to skiers, as it boasted the planet’s highest ski run. It also had the world’s highest ski lodge (higher than Mount Everest’s base camp) and was the closest ski resort to the equator. But after 18,000 years of awe and wonder, the Chacaltaya glacier has been reduced to a few lumps of ice. And once again, the culprit is us.
Global climate change has caused the glacier to melt, as it has many others in South America and all over the world.
The ski area officially closed in 2012.