A report over the past weekend that the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) is considering caps on the number of visitors to what comprise, arguably, the most popular tour attraction in the United States for overseas travelers is causing concern among tour operators—both international and receptive, as well as U.S. domestic operators—just as delegates from more than 60 nations are preparing to attend IPW in two weeks (June 18-22) in New Orleans. The news also comes in the wake of a record year in the number of visitors to locations operated by NPS, and with the expectation that those numbers will increase both this year and next as viewers worldwide see Brand USA’s giant screen movie, “National Parks Adventure,” which focuses on U.S. national parks, on screens in every major overseas source markets.
According to an AP report, NPS is seriously considering, or is already seeking input from users and other sources in order to determine if a limit on the number of visitors should be implemented at such popular national parks as Denali National Park in Alaska, Yellowstone National Park, Arches and Canyonland National Parks in Utah and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Some highlights of the problem facing the parks include the following:
—Visits to U.S. national parks and related properties in 2015 reached a record 307 million, surpassing the previous record year set in 2014. And most estimates seem to indicate that 2016 will set another record.
—Last summer at Grand Canyon National Park, park managers increased entrance fees and moved lines along by dedicating an entrance gate to people who already had an annual park pass.
—Nearly 4.1 million people visited Yellowstone National Park in 2015, a 17 percent increase in visitors over 2014 (an additional 580,000 people). There weren’t enough bathrooms or parking spaces in the park. Staff and visitors reported pulses of crowding at popular spots, “partially due to an increasing number of tour buses.”
—In 2015, interpretive rangers gave out 52,036 resource warnings for behaviors such as threatening thermal features, approaching wildlife too closely, hiking in restricted areas and “taking bathroom breaks outside of the restroom.”
—From 2014 to 2015, motor vehicle accidents with injuries were up 167 percent, emergency medical transports to facilities outside the park were up 37 percent, and search and rescue operations were up 61 percent.
—Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah are looking at additional options to address increased visitor numbers, including a timed entry system, building more parking lots and other infrastructure, setting a daily cap on vehicle entrances and adding a private shuttle service.
Top 50 U.S. National Parks, Recreation Areas, National Memorials, Historical Parks, Etc.
2015 Attendance and Share
|Rank||Park||Recreation Visitors||% of Total|
|1||Blue Ridge PKWY||15,054,603||4.90%|
|2||Golden Gate NRA||14,888,537||4.85%|
|3||Great Smoky Mountains NP||10,712,674||3.49%|
|5||Lake Mead NRA||7,298,465||2.38%|
|6||George Washington MEM PKWY||7,286,463||2.37%|
|8||Natchez Trace PKWY||5,785,812||1.88%|
|9||Vietnam Veterans MEM||5,597,077||1.82%|
|10||Grand Canyon NP||5,520,736||1.80%|
|11||World War II Memorial||5,068,224||1.65%|
|12||Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP||4,798,312||1.56%|
|13||Castle Clinton NM||4,597,029||1.50%|
|14||Cape Cod NS||4,503,220||1.47%|
|16||Statue of Liberty NM||4,279,020||1.39%|
|17||San Francisco Maritime NHP||4,173,014||1.36%|
|18||Rocky Mountain NP||4,155,916||1.35%|
|21||Korean War Veterans Memorial||4,077,835||1.33%|
|22||Gulf Islands NS||3,976,883||1.29%|
|23||Delaware Water Gap NRA||3,735,134||1.22%|
|25||Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial||3,530,401||1.15%|
|27||Franklin Delano Roosevelt MEM||3,290,080||1.07%|
|29||Chattahoochee River NRA||3,173,204||1.03%|
|30||Grand Teton NP||3,149,921||1.03%|
|31||Thomas Jefferson MEM||3,102,442||1.01%|
|33||Point Reyes NS||2,501,106||0.81%|
|34||Glen Canyon NRA||2,495,093||0.81%|
|35||Rock Creek Park||2,443,772||0.80%|
|36||Mount Rushmore NMEM||2,434,297||0.79%|
|38||Cuyahoga Valley NP||2,284,612||0.74%|
|39||Assateague Island NS||2,275,606||0.74%|
|40||Cape Hatteras NS||2,274,635||0.74%|
|42||Kennesaw Mountain NBP||2,174,870||0.71%|
|43||Valley Forge NHP||2,143,965||0.70%|
|44||Joshua Tree NP||2,025,756||0.66%|
|45||National Capital Parks Central||1,833,085||0.60%|
|46||Hawaii Volcanoes NP||1,832,660||0.60%|
|47||Bryce Canyon NP||1,745,804||0.57%|
|50||Indiana Dunes NL||1,640,195||0.53%|
|Source: U.S. National Park Service|
Pay to Play? There are two key factors that confront NPS. First is the natural tension between the dual mission of the park service to enhance the visitor experience for current users, while taking steps to ensure the visitor experience in the future; and a Congressional mandate imposed on NPS (and on other federal agencies) to seek alternative revenue streams beyond government appropriations.
In a scorching op-ed piece in the New York Times last week, Reed Watson, executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center said that the current problem with the U.S. national park system is a sense of entitlement on the part of Americans. He recommends increased user fees at all facilities: “We Americans want uncrowded, bucolic landscapes and we want them for free — or more precisely, we want them for the taxpayer-subsidized, price of a $30, seven-day car pass. Subsidizing entrance fees into our national parks ensures the parks will stay crowded and poorly maintained. The idea behind the national parks was preservation, not degradation in the name of subsidized access. And preservation is not free.”