Tourism has slowed at one of Southern Nevada’s most famous attractions, and it’s pretty dam hard to pinpoint the reason.
The last two years have been the quietest in at least a decade at Hoover Dam, with little more than 720,000 paid visitors in 2015 and fewer than 696,000 in 2014.
Dam experts have offered a few possible explanations for the decline, but nothing concrete.
One obvious factor is the Hoover Dam bypass bridge, which began carrying vehicles across Black Canyon in October 2010. Before that, U.S. Highway 93 snaked down into the canyon and across the top of the dam, creating a traffic bottleneck that prompted many travelers to park and do some sightseeing during the slow drive through.
Now tourists must exit the highway on the Nevada side of the canyon and drive about three miles to reach the dam and access the pedestrian walkway that leads onto the bypass bridge.
Hoover Dam also has raised its prices and started closing to the general public at night over the past several years.
In 2013, the price of visitor center admission rose from $8 to $10, a 30-minute tour increased from $11 to $15, and parking in the garage and Arizona spillway lot jumped from $7 to $10.
The following year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation quietly cut off visitor access to the area from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. (September through April) and from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. (May through August). The top of the dam used to be open 24 hours a day all year long back when it doubled as an interstate highway.
Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Rose Davis said closing at night has made the facility easier and less expensive to secure.
“We are protecting a piece of nationally critical infrastructure,” she said. “It’s a totally different perspective than when (the dam) was the only way to get from here to there.”
Davis added that not many people were visiting the dam at night anyway “since there is nothing much to do or see after dark on the property.”
But the drop in tourism actually predates changes made in the past several years, including the opening of the bypass. Hoover Dam visitation peaked in 1995, after the current visitor center and parking garage opened, triggering several years of paid attendance that approached but didn’t quite top 1 million.
The trend has been generally — though not steadily — downward ever since.
In 2011, the bypass bridge’s first full year of operation, the number of paying customers at the dam jumped almost 50,000 to more than 823,000. But the following year, it dropped by nearly 70,000 to about 755,000. It hasn’t come close to cracking the 800,000 mark since, though the numbers so far this year are ahead of similar points in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Dennis McBride is a Boulder City native, historian and director of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas. He once worked at Hoover Dam and has written extensively about its history, which is entwined with his own. In the early 1950s, his mother and her friends used to drive down to the dam in their jalopies to play records and dance in the parking lots at the iconic structure.
He said he doesn’t know what to make of the broader decline in visitation, but what’s happened in recent years can probably be traced to the highway improvements.
“My first thought is people are taking the bridge and speeding on by. There are fewer people who are making Hoover Dam a destination,” McBride said. “We’re going to see the same thing happen in Boulder City when they open the bypass there.”
That project will carry U.S. 93 around Boulder City to the east and south. It is under construction and slated for completion in 2018.
Ultimately, McBride doesn’t worry about tourists finding Hoover Dam. After all, he said, the place still draws well over a half-million people even in a down year.
“It’s like the Taj Mahal,” McBride said. “It will always be visited.”