Operators could pay as much as $1,200 for largest buses during peak season: The U.S. National Park Service announced last week that it is proposing to increase tour bus entrance fees at some of the nation’s most popular and increasingly overcrowded national parks, and it has predictably met with some concern among the millions of people who visit the facilities, as well as the U.S. tour operators, receptive tour operators and international tour operators who promote and sell national park product.
The NPS says that 80 percent of the commercial tour entrance fees remain in parks that collect them. The other 20 percent is spent on projects in other national parks. NPS would expend the funds on projects and activities that further the mission and purpose of the NPS, with an emphasis on deferred maintenance. That is, the NPS says it has a $12 billion backlog of projects.
Major Associations Taken Aback: Pam Inman, president of NTA, told us that the organization and its tour operators were “concerned about the reasonableness and size of the proposed increase.”
NTA has had a longstanding agreement with the National Park Service, she explained, that the association would be notified 18 months ahead of any entrance fee increases so our members could implement pricing adjustments. “This is critical for our members and their customers,” she noted, “as companies book tour groups months in advance. With this recent announcement of the proposal to establish seasonal pricing on many of the most visited parks, NTA is concerned how this will impact not only our tour companies but also those area supplier members who serve their travelers.”
Inman pointed out that the proposed change “has no reasonable implementation period of the fee increase, with only a 30-day public comment period,” she said, while announcing that NTA has formed a coalition with other industry organizations to express the industry’s concerns.
Meanwhile, the International Inbound Travel Association (IITA) echoed NTA’s concern, with spokesperson Lisa Simon—she’s IITA’s executive director—saying that the organization was “shocked at the proposed peak-season commercial tour entrance fee structure. While we have advocated for (the Park Service’s) standardized Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) fees and processes, these proposed increases – which could be more than 400 percent during peak season for one motorcoach tour group – are outrageous.”
“We have consistently advocated for more funding for the National Park Service to address serious backlogged infrastructure issues, so we’re not opposed to reasonable fee increases,” she said. “However, this proposal is not the answer. We will provide comments on the proposal by the November 23 deadline and will encourage our members to do the same.”
It’s More than just Entrance Fee Increases: The entrance fees are part of a package of what one might call a realignment in the way the NPS conducts business with the tour operator community. In the report that explained the proposal, the NPC pointed out that The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 amended the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 by requiring the Secretary of Interior to establish a commercial tour fee “…to be imposed on each vehicle entering (each unit of the National Park Service for which an entrance fee is charged) for the purpose of providing commercial tour services within the unit.”
The NPS has not updated the commercial tour entrance fee schedule since implementation in 1998. Beginning May 1, 2019 all parks that have a vehicle entrance rate must charge the commercial tour entrance fees based upon the most recent Commercial Vehicle Fee Schedule below. Parks that have a per person entrance rate only will charge the per person fee.
The Park Service is also proposing to implement peak-seasonal commercial tour entrance fees at 17 national parks. The peak-season for each park is defined as its busiest contiguous five month period of visitation. The proposed new fee structure will be implemented in Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Olympic, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion National Parks with peak season starting on May 1, 2019; in Acadia, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and Shenandoah National Parks with peak season starting on June 1, 2019, and in Joshua Tree National Park with peak season starting on January 1, 2020. Proposed peak-season commercial tour entrance fees are below.
The proposed entrance fee increases are part of several changes in Park Service policy developed, the NPS says, “in response to feedback from the commercial tour industry.” Other proposed revisions will change its Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) permitting policies. “A number of road-based commercial tour1 providers operate in more than one park unit and expressed frustration over inconsistencies in the NPS CUA program,” the NPS explained. “Currently, operators must deal with varying CUA fees and lack of a standard CUA application process. This lack of consistency has led to tour operator confusion.”
The Park Service invites the public to comment on the proposed changes to commercial tour requirements and fees. Public comments will be accepted until November 23, 2017. To submit written comments, mail comments to: National Park Service, Recreation Fee Program, 1849 C Street, NW, Mail Stop: 2346 Washington, DC 20240.
NOTE: There has never been a charge to enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited (more than 11 million a year) park in the system. This is because a property deed restricts the Great Smoky Mountains facility from charging admission. Nearly 1,200 landowners parted with their land to make the park in 1936. In 1951, when the state of Tennessee handed over control of the highways that run through the Smokies, it stipulated that the park had to be free for everyone to visit. Specifically, “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed,” which is generally how National Parks generate revenue.