Seattle Space Needle bouncing back after COVID pandemic closure

From Seattle Center’s Instagram-worthy view, mirrored on the side of the Museum of Pop Culture’s shiny building, the Space Needle is reflecting on 60 years.

SEATTLE — As the Puget Sound region bounces back from economic downturn during the pandemic, the Space Needle could provide a needed boost to tourism in Seattle.

The global icon helped Seattle and King County reach a major milestone in 2019.

“Before the pandemic, travel and tourism in Seattle and King County was an $8.1 billion industry,” said John Boesche, senior vice president of tourism for Visit Seattle.

Just when Seattle tourism was doing better than ever before, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Washington state before spreading across the nation.

“Tourism was the first to be hit by COVID,” said Randy Coté, director of marketing and business development at the Space Needle. “[It’s] probably going to be the longest to recover.”

In March 2020, the city, the state and much of the country shut down and everyone went home.

“We looked at 2020 and of course, total devastation on travel and tourism and for our hospitality partners as well,” said Boesche.

Just before that, known Seattle artist Ryan “Henry” Ward was finally getting the big break he had waited for: The chance to sell his art inside the Space Needle.

“I was super excited. I felt like, like Babe Ruth, you know or something like that. I was like, ‘Oh I am just hitting home runs,'” said Ward. “I think being in the Space Needle is one of the biggest deals in Seattle.”

However, right when they were getting ready to launch his merchandise, the Space Needle closed to the public for four months because of the pandemic.

“I went through a period of time where I wasn’t making much money but I switched my focus to like painting peoples’ garages while they were at home,” Ward said.

Countless businesses closed for good. Others pivoted and tourism in Seattle took a serious nosedive.

“When we reopened in July 2020, you look at the rest of 2020, we were basically doing about half of our normal attendance,” said Coté.

Visitations to Seattle and King County went from nearly 42 million in 2019 to 22 million in 2020. The region saw a more than 47% decrease in overall visits and a more than 39% decrease in jobs supported by tourism.

But the pandemic, as hard as it was and still is, is just a small chapter in the Space Needle’s history.

“From being closed for four months to having half of your attendance back, we are very happy to have it,” said Coté.

Overall, tourism is already bouncing back and 2021 brought more than 27 million visitors to Seattle and King County.

“We are looking at 2021 numbers now that are about two-thirds of our pre-pandemic travel volumes,” Boesche said. “Everyone wants to come and experience the Space Needle and to have that open I think was a really great signal that we are, as a destination, open once again.”

Ward is happy he finally gets to see his art sell in one of Seattle’s most popular destinations.

“A couple months into it I was kind of blown away by the amount of stuff of mine that was moving,” he said. “Feels exciting to be a part of something that’s such a staple in Seattle.”

As the Space Needle celebrates 60 years, the landmark remains a symbol of the future.

“We think we’re going to see a really strong summer,” said Boesche. “We know attractions like the Space Needle play an incredibly important of that story.”