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Seeing the Impossible

Much like the ark Noah built in the Bible, the Ark Encounter is a project that should have been impossible.

Opened in Williamstown, Kentucky, in 2016, the Ark Encounter’s main attraction, built to replicate the dimensions of the ark in the biblical account, is 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet high. It’s one of the largest structures of its kind in the world, and you can’t fully appreciate its enormity until you see it in person.

But size is only one of the Ark Encounter’s marvels. The attraction, which initially cost over $100 million to build, attracted more than 1 million visitors in its first year and, in an impressive feat, matched that figure again in its second year. Organizers expect attendance to top 1 million again in the 2018-2019 season, too.

As a tourism industry insider and a lifelong resident of Kentucky, I’ve been thrilled to see the Ark Encounter succeed on this level. But my proximity to the project has also given me a front-row seat to just how difficult it can be to accomplish something this large.

First, there were the haters — anti-religion activists who opposed the project at every turn, in some cases going to court to try to keep the Ark from receiving tax incentives. Then, there was the price tag: $100 million is a ton of money to raise, especially for a faith-based organization. And then there was the issue of execution: With so much at stake and so many people watching, the Ark Encounter had no margin for error. They had to do everything right.

Fortunately for the Ark, for travelers and for Kentucky, it all came together. Now, even some opponents of the project admit that it has been a boon to Kentucky tourism.

Visitors are spending time and money in Williamstown and the surrounding communities, which sit about halfway between Lexington and Cincinnati. These areas didn’t get much in the way of tourism before the Ark opened and, in some cases, had few jobs to offer locals. But the Ark Encounter employs hundreds of workers and contributes millions of dollars a year to the state and local governments through tax revenues.

Perhaps even more impressive than the Ark’s economic impact are the waves it is making in the Kentucky tourism community in general. (You’ll find the Ark, as well as some of our other favorite Kentucky travel experiences, in our article “Larger Than Life” on page 22.)The attraction garnered international press when it opened and quickly thrust northern Kentucky into the tourism spotlight. The flood of visitors nearly doubled hotel occupancy at properties around the region. And other destinations within a two-hour drive of the Ark, including towns in southern Indiana and Ohio, have reported significant increases in tourism traffic as groups stop to eat, explore and overnight on their way to or from the Ark Encounter.

Seeing the Ark’s path to success reminds me of something I’ve been contemplating a lot lately: Nothing great ever happens without massive amounts of vision, determination, risk and hard work. But for people who are willing to shoulder the burden, ignore the naysayers and pursue their vision, no amount of work will stand in the way.

I hope you’ll get a chance to take a group to the Ark Encounter. It will inspire your travelers in their faith. And it might just inspire you to stand tall and do something that seems impossible.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.