3/5/2013 - Asheville's Biltmore toppled as top tourism site
by Mark Barrett - Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE -- Science beat opulence last year as the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences moved to the top of a list of the state's most visited museums and historic sites, displacing the Biltmore Estate.
Biltmore finished first in each of the previous nine years for which Matthews-based Carolina Publishing Associates surveyed attendance at museums and historic sites, but the state-owned museum in Raleigh bested Biltmore by nearly 98,000 visitors in 2012.
The opening of the museum's Nature Research Center last April boosted its attendance numbers -- so much so that the head of the company that conducts the survey predicted that Biltmore will reclaim the top spot next year as the newness of the research center wears off.
"Biltmore continues to grow and extend its brand. They'll be right there at the top of the rankings," said Sam Rogers, president of Carolina Publishing.
The survey says the museum had 1.22 million visitors last year while Biltmore had 1.12 million.
Kathleen Mosher, director of communications at Biltmore, said the shift in the rankings does not indicate any loss of popularity there.
The estate saw more visitors over the 12 months that ended Thursday than it did over any 12-month-period, Mosher said. That figure was up 4 percent over the previous 12 months.
"We always feel fortunate to be included on any list of top attractions in the state," she said.
The Museum of Natural Sciences typically draws about 700,000 people a year, but the new 80,000-square-foot Nature Research Center helped change that, museum spokesman Jonathan Pishney said.
The center allows visitors to watch scientists at work in their laboratories in fields like genomics and paleontology, and scientists sometimes come out and explain their work to those watching, Pishney said. It has exhibits that allow visitors to do some hands-on experiments or explain how science is done.
"It's really a chance to sort of demystify and really encourage the new age of scientists," he said.
Another museum official said at a news conference Monday that the higher figures reflect growing curiosity about science, not just the new facility.
"Clearly, across North Carolina, there's a widespread interest to understand what science can tell us about what's changing in our society and in the environment around us," said Alvin Braswell, a deputy director of the museum.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.