South Carolina's small zoo in Columbia pulling many visitors

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden drew more visitors last year than the major zoos in Atlanta, Jacksonville, Fla., and New Orleans.

How has a zoo in the middle of a relatively poor state, in a small metropolitan area, managed to compete with the big cities? Tourism officials say it’s a combination of geography, smart marketing and visionary management. It also helps that local residents have an affection for the 35-year-old facility on the banks of the Saluda River.

"Riverbanks has established themselves as a destination zoo in a place that isn’t always seen as a destination city," said Dave Zunker, former vice president of the Midlands' visitors bureau and now president of the Saratoga (N.Y.) Convention and Tourism Bureau.

"When you go to Columbia, you go to the zoo. Most cities that size have sort of lame zoos."

The Columbia metro area has a population of about 716,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Riverbanks’ attendance in fiscal year 2008-09 was 955,542.

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