Celebrating their centennial, U.S. national parks are at capacity

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Visitors take a mule ride through Grand Canyon National Park.
Visitors take a mule ride through Grand Canyon National Park.

With all the buzz surrounding this year’s centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, 2016 was already expected to be a good year for attendance. But coupled with global events that have made some travelers wary of heading abroad, such as the Zika virus and the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, domestic travel and national park visitation is surging far beyond expectations.

“Some parks are now in danger of being overcrowded,” said Betsy O’Rourke, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the largest concessionaire in the parks system. Xanterra owns and operates properties, restaurants and stores in some of the country’s most iconic and popular national parks, including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Zion. And according to O’Rourke, accommodations in those parks often sell out during the peak travel season each year.

For 2016, she said that for all practical purposes there is no inventory left.

“Any park that is opened seasonally, we’re pretty much sold out,” O’Rourke said, adding that Xanterra has some off-season availability in parks that are open year-round. For travelers hoping to book stays in the most popular national parks this year, she said, “If I’m giving advice, really look at the shoulder season.”

The national parks have seen large attendance swings. A little more than 281 million people visited them in 1986, but that dropped to 255 million four years later and climbed and dropped during the next two decades. For the last two years, the parks have seen huge gains, to almost 293 million visitors in 2014 (nearly 20 million more than 2013), then a record-breaking 307 million in 2015.

The challenge is that although there are 410 national park entities — national parks, monuments, battlefields, coastlines, recreation areas, etc. — there continues to be a crush on the most popular ones. These include the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Grand Teton and Glacier. Those sites are even more in demand in an anniversary year when the parks are expected to be high on everyone’s to-do list.

The hope is that travelers will also discover the hidden gems of the National Park Service, which would spread out visitation and increase awareness about the service’s diverse assets. Among the goals for the centennial year, according to Elizabeth Stern, the public affairs specialist for the National Park Service’s Centennial office, is “building awareness of parks and programs that aren’t as well-known.”

Glacier National Park in Montana drew 2.4 million visitors last year.
Glacier National Park in Montana drew 2.4 million visitors last year.

She said that despite the high visitation expected this year, “We will work in partnership with the national parks to make sure that every guest has a great experience.”

O’Rourke said that in addition to crowd management, companies like Xanterra are also committed to sustainability and ensuring that the parks’ popularity does not compromise their future.

For example, food waste like apple peels and other appropriate food are used to feed the mules that transport visitors and suppliers in the Grand Canyon. Xanterra does not sell bottled water, instead providing visitors with water-refilling stations.

While accommodations inside some of the most popular parks have long since sold out, tour operators have gotten creative by booking accommodations outside and nearby, in places that can serve as a hub for day visits.

One tour operator, Audley Travel, even used the possible overcrowding this year as a tool to market national parks abroad.

“Today there are over 1,200 national parks in more than 100 countries,” Audley Travel wrote in a promotional email. “As U.S. national parks will definitely see a surge in visitors this year, international national parks are a great alternative for travelers looking for a slightly less-crowded option.”

Among the operator’s foreign park recommendations were Corcovado in Costa Rica, Pacific Rim in Canada and Hakone in Japan.

A major parks push

Last year, the National Park Service launched the Find Your Park campaign, aimed at encouraging Americans to connect with their national parks, as well as leveraging the centennial year to better engage the next generation of travelers.

Tour operators and travel companies had already been increasing their inventory and marketing efforts in anticipation of the much-publicized anniversary, which is being marked by special events throughout the National Park System this year. Little could anyone have predicted that international events would further turn U.S. travelers’ attention more inward.

“We have found that Paris certainly stalled travel to Europe and that many [travelers] are staying closer to home,” said Dan Sullivan IV, the vice president of sales at Collette. Prior to last month’s attacks in Brussels, bookings for Collette’s national parks itineraries were already up more than 50% year over year for 2016.

“We’re so thankful for the support of the travel industry in promoting, supporting and encouraging travel to the national parks this year,” Sullivan said.

It would appear that the national parks as well as domestic travel in general are picking up a lot of the slack being felt in travel to impacted international destinations.

Utah’s Zion National Park welcomed more than 3.6 million visitors in 2015.
Utah’s Zion National Park welcomed more than 3.6 million visitors in 2015.

For example, when the mosquito-borne Zika virus hit countries across Central and South America, the Caribbean and Mexico, Brittney Magner of Chicago-based Royal Travel & Tours said some of her clients decided to stay closer to home for spring break.

Zika, she said, “has really affected the travel for the young millennials, for those just starting families.” She added that some families had canceled preplanned spring break trips to countries where Zika transmission had been reported and had rebooked their trip for somewhere in the U.S.

Given the growing demand for domestic travel, several companies within the last month have been adding capacity for destinations in the U.S., notably the national parks.

Last week, Disney’s tour brand, Adventures by Disney, added new U.S. vacations to its roster, with a Montana itinerary, which includes camping adjacent to Yellowstone National Park and touts the National Park Service’s centennial celebrations as part of the draw. That came on the heels of Intrepid Travel introducing four adventure-oriented trips, all focused on the national parks.

“We are privileged to have some of the most iconic travel destinations in the world right here in the United States, and we hope to encourage more people to visit them in 2016,” said Leigh Barnes, the regional director for Intrepid Travel in North America. Intrepid’s new itineraries include hiking and kayaking in Yellowstone, cycling in Bryce and Zion, hiking in Sequoia and Mount Whitney and sailing in Dry Tortugas, a national park in the Gulf of Mexico, about 70 miles west of Key West.

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