You are here

Park Visitation Trends: Is There a Problem?


    When you last visited a national park, were you surrounded by hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of other visitors? During your stay, did you think the park was overcrowded, to the point where you grew frustrated at not being able to enjoy the view in solitude, or at least a decent amount of quiet? Or was your visit pleasantly uncrowded?
    I ask because last week, while I was somewhere over the heart of the country heading back home from Washington, D.C., testimony was being delivered to a House subcommittee on visitation trends to the national parks. If you listened close enough to some of that testimony, you'd swear that the parks were in danger of going out of business and that the National Park Service was inept when it comes to marketing. 
    To some witnesses before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, the national park system's relatively stable visitation trends are inappropriate and reason enough to clear the way for more motorized recreation.

    It's All in the Numbers

    According to Park Service statistics, 2005 recreation visitation across the system totaled 273.5 million. That was a slight drop from 2004's 276.9 million visitors, but up quite a bit from 2003's total of 266 million.
    Looking farther back, in 1999 visitation reached 287.1 million, which was just a fraction shy of the all-time record of 287.2 million recorded in 1987. Between 1999 and 2003, national park visitation dipped to 285.9 million in 2000, 279.9 million in 2001, and 277.3 million in 2002 before bottoming in 2003.
    An argument could be made that those numbers are somewhat healthy in light of the economy's ride the past four or five years. True, they're not on a constant upward climb. But they're not plummeting, either, and if you look at the visitation statistics from 1979 to 2005 you can't help but notice a roller coaster ride. Which makes me wonder why last week's hearing was even called.
    "Today, as a whole, visitation throughout the national park system continues to decline since its historical high of 287 million in 1999," Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, said in calling the meeting to order. "While the tragic events of September 11, 2001, certainly affected many aspects of life in the United States, our economy has continued to rebound, yet overall visitation to the national parks has dropped."
    In Rep. Pearce's wake followed three hours of testimony, questions and answers. Testimony from state tourism officials, representatives of the concessions industry, the gateway town association, and the Travel Industry Association of America. A common thread was woven through much of the testimony: high gas prices certainly have impacted travel, Americans today don't have as much leisure time as they once had, there is a wide diversity of entertainment options available to travelers, and the generations that followed the Baby Boomers are more interested in their iPods and video games than communing with nature.
    "National park visitors today are disproportionately comprised of Baby Boomers, and Boomers are likely to remain an important market in the future," said Dr. Suzanne Cook, senior vice president of research for the travel industry association. "But attention needs to be increasingly paid to how best to attract and serve the needs and desires of all these young visitors."

    Marketing, And Motors, Are the Answer

    New Mexico sent its tourism secretary, Michael Cerletti, to the hearing, and his message teetered on blaming the Park Service for its entrance fees, deteriorating infrastructure, poor marketing, and lack of what he termed "meaningful park experiences."
    "Interpretive and education programs in the national parks are too little changed from what they have been for decades," he complained. "A park ranger who is passionate and knowledgeable about her subject can still educate and even inspire visitors. But increasingly, visitors want more of a 'hands on' experience and have little patience for 'talking heads.'"
    John Schoppmann appeared before the committee on behalf of his employer, Forever Resorts, which has 17 National Park Service concession contracts in such places as the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grand Teton National Park, Olympic National Park and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. Maintaining that visitation to national parks is on a dreadful decline, Mr. Schoppmann argued that the Park Service has helped spur the decline "through rule-making or management policies (that have) been restricting access to thousands of park visitors who traditionally used the parks for their particular recreational pursuits."
    "In short," he went on, "the Park Service has been attempting to limit or eliminate traditional motorized (ie. snowmobile and personal watercraft) recreational pursuits. We see this as another factor contributing to the declining trends of the recreational visitor in our national parks."
    "...The Park Service just cannot eliminate or restrict traditional recreational access and use in our national parks and expect no consequences to their actions, ie., less park visitation."
    Taking a verse from that song was Bob Warren, chairman of the National Alliance of Gateway Communities.
    "A growing number of those looking to the outdoors for recreation seem to want to bring all their entertainment with them," he told the subcommittee. "Their definition of an outdoor experience includes jet skis, ATVs, motorcycles, and jet boats -- all part of activities, that are largely prohibited in national parks. Therefore, a rapidly expanding portion of the outdoor recreation user group has migrated to areas where they can engage in these high-impact activities."
    Mr. Schoppmann and Mr. Warren also touched on a range of other impediments to increased national park tourism: poor advertising and marketing by the Park Service, an array of other entertainment choices, dropping international visitation.
    Indeed, when it comes to foreign visitors, according to Scott Ahlsmith, chairman of The Travel Institute, "U.S. market share of inbound international travel is at an all-time low."
     "Between 1992 and 2004, U.S. market share has dropped 35 percent," he said, adding that "every 1 percent increase or decrease in inbound international market share adds or subtracts 151,000 jobs, $12.1 billion in expenditures, and $2 billion more in tax revenues. Losing inbound international market share has cost the U.S. economy more than $286 billion in revenue and an additional $48 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue."

    Travelers Have Too Many Choices

    Will that international traffic rebound? While TIA's Dr. Cook says forecasts indicate international travel to the United States could recover to 2000 levels this summer, Mr. Schoppmann pointed out that "visitors from countries who we typically would see in national parks are down significantly from 2000 to 2005."
    Traffic from the United Kingdom is off 8 percent, from Italy down 11 percent, from France 19 percent, from Germany 21 percent, and from Japan 23 percent, he said.
    "This may be for a number of reasons: the United States has an image problem world-wide, the United States doesn't promote well overseas, and many people avoid U.S. carriers," Mr. Schoppmann continued. "In fact, 57 percent of Japanese, 42 percent of French and 38 percent of the UK avoid flying U.S. air carriers. Clearly, we need to look at our marketing strategy in order to pull the international visitor back into the United States."
    That, however, might be a tall task, as global tourism opportunities are growing, according to Dr. Cook.
    "Shifts in global travel patterns are becoming apparent as 'the world flattens,''' she said. "China, for example, is now the largest source of tourists in Asia with outbound travel tripling in the last five years and expected to double again in the next five years. While now affecting primarily Asian destinations, China, as well as India, will become a major focus of tourism development throughout the world, including the U.S. And in Europe, Central and Eastern Europe are taking center stage as both travel origins and destinations, while Western Europe is losing market share.
    "While Japan, the UK and Germany have traditionally been the origin of the majority of international visitors to America's national parks, many more are likely to be arriving from these emerging markets in the years ahead," she said.

    So, What Are We to Make of All This?

    For starters, I don't see where there's a crisis in national park visitation, especially in light of all the other tourism draws that exist these days. While visitation was on a relatively steady climb from 1979 (205.4 million) to 1987 (287.2 million), since then its yo-yoed up and down, dipping to 255.6 million in 1990 before climbing to 274.7 million in 1992, dropping to 265.8 million in 1996, soaring to 287.1 million in 1999, dipping to 266 million in 2003 and then rising --by nearly 11 million!-- to 276.9 million the following year.
    It helps, too, I think, if these claims of flat or declining national park visitation were put in context with visitation levels to other public lands, for that shows that recreation on public lands in general has been relatively flat, if not in decline.
    Visitation to U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands has gone from 58.9 million in 1996 to 62.1 million in 1999 before plummeting to 51.5 million in 2001. Since then it's crept upwards a bit, to 54 million in 2004. Over on U.S. Forest Service lands, visitation was roughly 209 million in 2000, 214 million in 2001, and 204.8 million in 2004. Should we hold congressional hearings on those trends?
    Opening the national parks to more motorized recreation is not going to be a panacea, as it could drive out of the parks folks who go to enjoy the relative solitude. (Check out my January post about what national park visitors want to experience.) In fact, I've been told that counties neighboring Yellowstone National Park actually have enjoyed some banner winter tourism even as the park's snowmobile debacle has dragged on.
    Too, wolves have been an incredible money machine for those counties, generating $35 million
annually for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming from folks who head to Yellowstone with hopes of glimpsing one of the predators. While Yellowstone's visitation numbers might be dour -- down 4 percent from 2003 to 2005, according to Mr. Schoppmann -- those wolf dollars are nothing to sneeze at.
    Marketing the parks? Enter any bookstore in the country and you'll more than likely find at least one book and a magazine or two that are either focused on a national park or have an article about them. Travel writers like myself make a living promoting the parks. Could the Park Service do a better job in this arena? That's hard to say, as the concessionaires and gateway communities do an awful lot. If visitors want more "hands on" activities, as Mr. Cerletti claims, have them climb the Grand Teton, crawl on their bellies through Mammoth Cave, sea kayak around Acadia, or buck rapids through the Grand Canyon.
    Beyond the basic question of whether the Park Service should get more involved with marketing, where would the agency find the money to do so? It's already in the hole to the tune of roughly $600 million a year, and while NPS Director Fran Mainella last year revived the agency's internal Tourism Office, its budget covers the director's salary, and that's about it.
    As the witnesses' testimony indicates, there are many reasons that national park visitation is not climbing. Part of the problem lies, as author Richard Louv put it so distressingly in his book, "Last Child in the Woods," with the dilemma of generations that followed the Baby Boomers becoming disconnected with the natural world.
    In fact, I'm more concerned about the disconnect with nature in our younger generations than with relatively flat visitation numbers. Treat that problem and I think you'll go a long way toward curing the visitation concerns.   


In the last ten years, the federal recreation fee programs have increased entrance fees, some of them have doubled. This could be a key factor impacting visitation. However, 277 million Americans continue to visit parks and are willing to pay for the experience.

In light of a giant maintenance backlog, falling operational budgets, and fewer park personnel, it is surprising that the Govt would be worried about lower visitation numbers to the NPS. If anything, they should be exploring ways to restrict public access to the parks until there is a budget that can support the numbers of visitors today. As I read your article though, it appears that those most concerned with the visitor counts are from the tourism industry that profit from visitation to the parks.

Actually, I think that declining visitation to the National Parks is something worth being concerned about. From 1986 - 1988, National Park visitation consistently topped 280 million recreational visits, and the NPS has never topped the 287.2 million recreational visits recorded in 1987 - coming closest in 1999. In 2005, the NPS only had 273 million recreational visits. What is disconcerting about this is that something on the order of 50 Parks have been added to the National Park System since 1988 - admittedly mostly smaller places, but still, most of these should have added to visitation. Moreover, there are now over 50 million more Americans than in 1987. Thus, I think the decrase in National Park visitation is real and is worth being concerned about. People who visit National Parks tend to be supporters of National Parks, and as the number of National Park visits per person in the US goes down, I think thats a bad thing for the Parks.

For what it's worth, after NPS visitation peaked at a record 287.2 million in 1987, it plummeted all the way down to 255.8 million in 1990, rebounded a bit to 274.7 million in 1992, and then slid again to 265.8 million in 1996 before climbing back up to 287.1 million in 1999. Without focusing on each year and examining what might have influenced upward or downward trends it's hard to be alarmist about what's been going on the past five years, particularly when you consider the economy, rising gas prices, other entertainment options, and increasing park fees. Certainly, as I noted in my post, the loss of 2.5 million visitors to Gulf Islands National Seashore alone last year had an enormous impact on the entire system's visitation numbers. Going back to 1987 the national park system has endured a roller-coaster ride in visitation and that's likely to continue. Too, when you consider that not too many years ago many were lamenting that the national parks were being "loved to death," I don't think the current trend is overly disconcerting, particularly when the NPS doesn't have the budget to adequately support its units.

Kurt - Thanks for posting these additional numbers. One thing that jumps out at me from them is that with visitation bottoming-out in 1990, and visitation peaking in 1990, its clear that economic conditions affect visitation. I think you're right that fees can also affect visitation. I think it would be good if politicians and industry representatives could consider these factors before waving numbers around. Indeed, I am sure that dilapidated visitor's centers, outdated exhibits, and declining ranger programs all negatively affect visitation. Maybe some of these industry representatives could be turned into advocates for addressing the NPS's budget woes?

There's another factor that doesn't get reported when discussing NPS visitor statistics. In my own park, where there is no entrance gate and there are many different places and ways that visitors enter, we rely on NPS staff and volunteers to count visitors. For 3 of the past 4 years, we have reported declining visitation, but this is more a reflection of fewer staff to count visitors than it is of the number of people visiting the park. -- A national park superintendent

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide