Pricing that goes into effect next year will make it much more costly for tour operators to take groups through the U.S. national parks. As a result, operators might offer fewer trips to the less popular parks, even though those tours help offset overcrowding in the most popular parks.

"That is the unfortunate side effect of this decision," said Peter van Berkel, president of Hallandale Beach, Fla.-based Travalco, a tour operator that brings international groups to the parks. 

New commercial use authorization (CUA) fees put in place by the National Park Service (NPS) that take effect Oct. 1, 2019, will require operators to pay a $300 annual application fee for each park they use as a tour destination in addition to a per-person entrance and administration fee that ranges from $5 to $30 per guest. 

Previously, the CUA application fees varied from park to park -- anywhere from free to a few hundred dollars -- and the responsibility fell to different entities at different parks. Sometimes the motorcoach company paid, sometimes the tour operator. It was this patchwork of requirements that the new policy aimed to address. Per-person entrance fees to many of the second- and third-tier parks have been free or cost very little.

According to van Berkel, for a midsize operator like Travalco, which offers about 45 parks on various products and itineraries, the new requirements would result in $13,500 in annual CUA park application fees alone, a huge increase in expenses for his tour operation, since previously those costs either didn't exist at some parks, were being paid for by bus companies or were much lower than $300. In total, the combination of the new CUA and per-person fees, once implemented, means van Berkel will have to charge anywhere from $150 to $250 per person more for national park programs in order to offset Travalco's expenses.

The head of the association offers her thoughts on the National Park Service's new fees and requirements.

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For some tour operators, the new requirements mean it will no longer be cost-effective to bring groups to less popular parks. With overcrowding in the top-tier ones such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite, van Berkel said that one of Travalco's solutions has been to "spread the joy" by bringing people to off-the-beaten-path parks. 

"There are so many fantastic parks that are underexposed," he said. "But indirectly, [the NPS is] hampering that effort."

According to the park service, the requirements are meant to streamline a process that was inconsistent across the parks network. Spokeswoman Kathy Kupper said the park service has been working with tourism industry associations since 2015 to meet their requests to standardize the CUA process. 

Kupper said the park service deemed the resulting CUA requirements "fair" and that operators should consider them final.

But Gary Schluter, general manager of Fort Collins, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Holiday Tours, said the requirements put an undue burden on tour operators. He said the recent individual entrance fee increase of $5 per person, per park at most national parks, part of the larger NPS effort to raise funds for much-needed improvement projects, was fair. 

"But it seems like the groups are the ones that are going to be heavily subsidizing the money that they need to do the improvements," he said, adding that, if anything, motorcoach tours help reduce the traffic and environmental impact on the parks.

Suzanne Rohde, vice president of government affairs and policy for the American Bus Association, which represents bus operators, tour operators and other travel companies, said the NPS did not do its due diligence before creating these requirements.

"NPS did not conduct any outreach to our industry," Rohde said, "and the way they put these proposals out also seems to indicate that they don't really understand how the industry works with regard to the transportation side as well as putting the tour package together."

She said that in a landscape where some motorcoach companies also operate as tour operators and where the relationships between transportation companies and tour operators are not uniform, it isn't exactly clear how the park service defines "commercial tour operators" and who will ultimately be on the hook for all the fees. 

"And they really haven't taken questions on it to [help] understand it," she added. "We're not entirely sure who's going to pick this all up, but one way or another, it's going to be passed on to the customer, and in the end it's going to be the parks that suffer."

Beyond the new CUA requirements, operators are closely watching a proposed reservation system at Arches National Park in Utah that could be used as a framework for other parks. 

The system would require operators to secure reservation slots to enter Arches, a move intended to limit the number of motorcoaches in the park and address traffic and parking congestion issues. 

Operators are concerned because the system would not inform them that they secured a reservation until two or three months prior to the date of entrance, severely limiting their ability to securely and legally market and sell itineraries that include Arches, since they normally sell tours much further out.

According to the NPS, similar reservation systems are under consideration at Acadia National Park in Maine and Zion National Park in Utah, and California's Muir Woods National Monument implemented a parking and shuttle reservation system in January.

Lisa Simon, executive director of the International Inbound Travel Association, said she has been involved in meetings and discussions with the park service and other tourism entities to discuss all of these issues. While a reversal of the CUA requirements doesn't appear to be on the table, she said she is optimistic about the fact that tour operators have a seat at the NPS table in order to voice their concerns and will hopefully be able to influence park entrance policies as they evolve.

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