Reports just prior to this year’s Memorial Day holiday weekend that the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) was seeking input as it considered how to deal with expected record crowds at the national parks, forests, monuments and other units that it oversees sent shivers through many in the tour and travel industry—especially among those who bring groups of international visitors to what are probably the USA’s most popular attractions for such visitors—who feared that the talk of reduced hours, limited access and caps on visitors that were mentioned in such reports would have a sharply negative impact on business.
But it appears that, even in a worst-case scenario, tour groups of visitors are likely to experience very little impact. The Inbound Report has spoken with different constituencies involved in the promotion of tourism to U.S. national parks and the following points, gleaned from our conversations, stand out.
—Practically speaking, it is too late in the 2016 travel season to do anything that would affect travelers planning to visit national parks, particularly in this, the 100th anniversary year of the creation of the United States national park system.
—Even though everyone involved agrees that that some park facilities are bursting at the seams and that lines of cars are a certainty in a year in which visitor numbers are expected to be broken at some sites, the NPS is not about limiting hours, putting caps on the number of visitors or imposing constraints on visitors. As the superintendent of one national park facility told us: “Our mission is to enhance the visitor experience at our parks, not limit it.”
— One direction in which the NPS is likely to go is in calling for visitors to explore different routes within popular national parks or, instead, visit some of the lesser-known parks where the visitor experience is likely to be more pleasant. Bob Hoelscher, a long-time tour director, travel writer and national park aficionado (he says that he has visited every unit in the system—“412 by my count”) is trying to get park product promoters to include places and facilities such as Colorado National Monument, “a site that few of my guests had even heard of,” Natural Bridges, Aztec Ruins and Tuzigoot National Monuments, as well as Chaco Culture National Historical Park, among others—as well as “parks like North Cascades, Lassen, John Day Fossil Beds, Dinosaur and El Malpais.”
—The majority of international visitors to U.S. national parks are group travelers who arrive in buses, which park administrators don’t seem to mind when compared to the individual visitor or family in a single vehicle. One superintendent told us with a chuckle that the challenge they have with international tour operators is that the operators “want no one else to be there when their bus groups arrive.”
—More than any other shift in policy or direction, it seems, according to one park concessionaire, that they would like to find a way “to reduce the number of automobiles carrying few visitors … but Americans love to visit in their cars.” He said that the U.S. visitor wants to drive to the Grand Canyon and park his car 50 yards from the rim. This contrasts with some parks elsewhere in the world in which visitors have to park their cars in satellite lots and take shuttle buses into the actual park.
—The unanimous expectation or hope is that some new policy directions or changes in existing policy are certain, because everyone believes that the number of visitors will continue to increase, particularly among overseas travelers, as the popularity of national parks continues to grow due to their access, lower admission prices than other travel attractions and more promotion of national park product than ever before.