Industry seeks phase-in of national park fee increases

WASHINGTON — The National Park Service is considering raising peak season entrance fees at 17 of the most popular national parks, which could result in hefty increases for tour and charter buses.

Such increases should be expected, but they should be reasonable and phased in to the lessen the impact on motorcoach operators, said Stacy Tetschner, president and chief executive officer of the United Motorcoach Association.

“There is going to be a fee increase. It is just a matter of seeing what it is going to be,” Tetschner said after a meeting of tour industry officials and leaders of the Department of Interior and National Park Service.

Federal officials are analyzing 110,000 public comments submitted in response to its proposal to double or triple some entrance fees to generate about $70 million annually to help address $11.3 billion in needed repairs.

Tourism industries and communities dependent on park tourism have universally condemned the amounts of the fee hikes. The proposal would raise fees to as much as $70 per private vehicle weekly (now $25 at some parks) and $900 to $1,200 per motorcoach.

It would cost $50 to enter on a motorcycle and $30 to enter on a bicycle or on foot.

Some commenters noted that higher entrance fees are being proposed at the same time the Trump administration budget proposal calls for a $400 million reduction in park spending.

Tetschner joined National Tour Association President Pam Inman and Peter Pantuso, president and chief executive officer of the American Bus Association, in the February 5 meeting at the Department of Interior.

“They said they are waiting on a final report from the contractor that is analyzing the public comments,” Tetschner said. “Based on what we were hearing, I am pretty confident they have a model that is going to work for the Secretary of the Interior (Ryan Zinke) and are looking for validation from the data for that model.”

Nonetheless, Tetschner said the tour industry representatives stressed the need for charter and tour operators to work fee increases into their planning and marketing.

“We pushed hard to make sure we got at least 18 months notice and certainly think they could phase in an increase over time,” he said.

The impacts would be felt mostly in the western states.

“I find the proposed fees exorbitant,” said Michael Rogers, president of the Northwest Motorcoach Association and Beeline Charters and Tours in Seattle. “They will serve as a deterrent for groups wanting to experience our nation’s most beautiful landscapes.”

Vickie Cole, co-owner of American Stage Tours in Concord, Calif., and treasurer of the California Bus Association, said operators would end up passing the costs on to their customers, which mostly are seniors.

Lengthy western tours would be hit hardest, Cole said.

“We are out there two to three weeks and may hit 10 parks. We may lose people depending on how high the fees go,” she said.

In announcing the fee proposal in October, the Interior Department said the increased fees for road-based commercial tours would “generate badly needed revenue for improvements to the aging infrastructure of national parks. This includes roads, bridges, campgrounds, waterlines, bathrooms, and other visitor services.”

The park service estimated the new fees could increase park revenue by $70 million a year, a 34 percent increase over the $200 million collected in fiscal 2016.

Many commenters called the plan insufficient and misguided. Some disputed the projected increase in revenue because the new fees would discourage too many visitors or convert them to $80 annual passes.

Critics also point out that the proposed budget for the next fiscal year reduces federal spending on the parks by 13 percent — nearly $400 million.

Top destinations

“National parks are among America’s top destinations, and our industry has consistently advocated for park funding,” the National Tour Association said in a letter.       “While we recognize that additional fees are needed to preserve our nation’s natural treasures, we are concerned the lack of a more staged implementation period to fairly and equitably implement the fee increase into tour packages will be burdensome on users of the parks and tour companies.”

The letter continued, “We also are concerned about the reasonableness and size of the proposed increase. Our organizations help to ensure that the movement of people through our parks is as efficient as possible.

“For example, just one bus can take up to 55 cars off the road, providing congestion and environmental benefits to all park users. In FY 2012, commercial bus fees were the third-highest revenue-related source for the parks.”

Under the proposal, fee increases for visitors in private vehicles would become effective when peak season begins in May or June. New fees on commercial vehicles would take effect in 2019.

The selected destinations are Acadia National Park, Maine; Arches National Park, Utah; Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah; Canyonlands National Park, Utah; Denali National Park, Alaska; Glacier National Park, Montana; Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona; Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming; Joshua Tree National Park, California; Mount Rainier National Park, Washington; Olympic National Park, Washington; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California; Shenandoah National Park, Virginia; Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming; Yosemite National Park, California; and Zion National Park, Utah.

The government operates 413 national parks that were visited by 331 million people in 2016.

“The amount collected from the increased fees would address less than 1 percent of the backlogged maintenance and infrastructure needs,” the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) said. “At the same time as proposing these massive fee increases, the administration has proposed the largest budget cut to the National Park Service since World War II.”

Rogers of the Northwest Motorcoach Association said he doesn’t understand why the Interior Department doesn’t raise the fees on energy and mining companies that lease public lands to finance the maintenance and management of the national parks.

“Asking cash-strapped Americans and small businesses to pay more in park entrance fees instead of raising money from large, multinational corporations that benefit from subsidized land leases and the biggest corporate tax cut in history doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said.

NPCA, which has 1.3 million members, said the 17 parks supported $6.7 billion in economic activity and more than 75,000 private-sector jobs in 2016. Visitors to all national parks spent $16.9 billion last year, according to the park service, supporting 295,000 jobs and $11.1 billion in payrolls in “gateway regions” — communities within 60 miles of a park.

The National Tour Association told federal officials that 74 percent of its operators include national parks in their packages and 58 percent believe a fee increase would affect decisions on including national parks in itineraries.

Fees will vary

Some proposed bus and motorcoach fee increases will apply to all national parks that currently charge a vehicle entrance rate. The rates vary by park. Some parks only charge a per-person fee while entrance to 118 parks is free.

Those fees would be $40 to $80 for sedans; $60 to $85 for 7- to 15-passenger vans; $110 to $300 for 16- to 25-passenger minibuses; $150 to $450 for 26- to 56-passenger motorcoaches; and $220 to $600 for motorcoaches seating 57 or more.

Higher fees would be levied at the 17 selected parks during peak seasons: sedans, $160; vans, $370; minibuses, $600; motorcoaches, $900; and motorcoaches with 57 or more passengers, $1,200.

The peak season for each park would be “its busiest contiguous five-month period of visitation.”

Additional fees would be charged for Commercial Use Authorizations (CUA), the park service proposal states. “For operations occurring after December 31, 2018, road-based commercial tour operators must obtain a CUA for each NPS unit in which they operate.”

A CUA is required for the tour company that advertises and schedules the trip, whether it owns vehicles or charters them. The proposal explains:

“Beginning January 1, 2019, all parks will charge commercial tour fees made up of three components: an annual $300 non-refundable CUA application fee . . . a CUA management fee (of) $5 per client . . . and 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.”

Based on the February 5 discussions at the Interior Department, Tetschner said the government might be considering fees based on numbers of individual passengers rather than a flat rate per vehicle.

It is difficult to determine how many park visitors arrive in commercial vehicles. Each park posts an annual report on the NPS website, but the reports are not formatted uniformly and most do not identify vehicle types.

On average, 9.3 percent of visitors arrived by bus at the six parks that did count. At that rate, buses would have carried about 4.4 million of the estimated 47.3 million visitors to the 17 parks last year.

More than a third of international visitors to the U.S. visit a national park, according to U.S. Travel Association (USTA) and U.S. Commerce Department statistics. About 13.6 million foreign travelers — 36.5 percent of the 2017 total — toured at least one park.

The strong value of the U.S. dollars compared with other foreign currencies already is deterring some international visitors, USTA said. The organization said the average overseas visitor spends $4,360 during an 18-night stay.

The National Park Service accepted public comments on the fee proposals from October 24 through December 22. Submissions were posted online in data files that excluded most identities.

Supporting increases

A scan through the files suggests most people believe national parks need more funding and would agree with modest fee increases. Some suggested that bus passengers, particularly foreigners, should pay higher fees. A few people wrote that foreign visitors could be culturally insensitive and cause damage to facilities.

In response, a tour operator wrote, “Motorcoaches usually have professional tour guides on board. These tour guides explain the rules of the parks, such as staying on the trails, not disrupting nature, etc.”

Steve Uelner, president and owner Country Travel Discoveries in Elm Grove, Wis, submitted the letter.

Numerous state and regional tourism organizations stressed the economic and employment benefits of park tourism.

Some comments blamed bus operators for creating congestion in the parks.

“I don’t feel the buses are causing congestion – it’s all the cars,” said Cole of American Stage Tours. “One bus could take as many as 56 cars off the road. You are still going to get the people whether they come in 56 cars or one bus.”

The National Parks Traveler Club noted on its website that the Department of the Interior may not pay attention to the submitted comments. It referred to the department’s recent decision to shrink several Western national monuments.

“There were 2.8 million comments made on the proposal to alter national monuments, with a large majority against any changes, but that didn’t sway the administration,” the club said.

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