The National Park Service recently implemented new commercial use authorization (CUA) fees and requirements for commercial tour operators that go into effect next year. Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran caught up with Lisa Simon, executive director of the International Inbound Travel Association, to find out what the requirements will mean for tour operators.
Q: How will the new CUA fees impact tour operators financially?
A: The way they are going to charge entrance fees for commercial tour operators has changed significantly. So where some parks weren't even charging a CUA fee, now every park is supposed to charge a $300 application fee for getting a permit. In the past, motorcoach operators have had to pay a per-vehicle fee, if they were charged, and that ranged from $100 to $300 per bus, and now tour operators have to pay a per-person entrance fee, which, if they have less than a busload or the fee is low, could be better or at least no more than what they paid in the past. But if you take, for example, a park that wasn't charging the $300 fee, and they also have to charge $20 per person on the coach, the [40-passenger] coach load is now going to cost $800. ... Now the operator's costs have just gone up by 500% or 600%.
Q: Separately, there's also a reservation system being proposed at Arches National Park that seems to have tour operators concerned. Why?
A: Based on the way the reservation system has been proposed, reservation requests would have to be submitted with their CUA application by Dec. 31 the year before. They can't submit the application much more than a few months before Dec. 31 currently. Operators, of course, are selling in some cases 18 to 24 months in advance. When you think about the European or even Asian countries having such strict consumer laws that say an operator can't sell or package something that they can't guarantee the visitor is going to get, they're not going to be able to actually sell the parks with reservation systems because they won't know if they have a reservation at the time that they're making that sale.
Q: According to the park service, the CUA requirements go into effect on Oct. 1, 2019. Is there really anything tour operators can do to reverse this policy?
A: At IPW (the annual inbound travel trade show), we actually had a very positive meeting that was hosted by the Western States Tourism Policy Council with us and representatives of the National Park Service as well as representatives of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the parks. I wouldn't say that there was any kind of indication that they would reverse policies, but there certainly was an indication that they were open to a continuing conversation and learning more.
Q: How do you balance the financial burden on your members against the fact that the parks need more money for improvements?
A: We continue to advocate that the funding for the park service infrastructure backlog should be paid, because it's significant, from the federal budget. We have also said for years that we understand and are supportive of fee increases as long as they're reasonable and as long as the industry is given 18 months' advance notice for operators to build it into their packages. And in this case, they did honor that 18 months.
Q: Given that the park service has said that the CUA requirements are final, what will be the fallout for operators that simply can't afford the fee increases?
A: On the fees, right now everybody is moving forward because it's a done deal as of this moment. They are moving forward with figuring out how to implement that into the coming tours. I think we'll see a lot of operators not including some of the parks. They may reference that the park is in a certain area in the brochure, but they won't be directly selling certain parks until and unless they get used to how things work.