Will new fees discourage national park tourism?

Tourism in national parks will be devastated by permit requirements and entrance fee hikes taking effect, according to a sampling of motorcoach operators. Increased paperwork requirements alone may discourage charter groups from visiting some parks, they said, adding that enforcement of the regulations may be nearly impossible at some parks.

It might even take Congressional action to protect tourism in the parks, said one member of the United Motorcoach Association board of directors.

“The National Park Service is doing something that is going to decrease tourism and have a devastating effect on motorcoach companies,” said John Bailey, owner of Bailey Coach in York, Pennsylvania, and president of the Pennsylvania Bus Association.

It will likely lead to fewer options for bus tours of national park, says Gary Moody, vice president of Holiday Tours in Randleman, North Carolina. “If it’s a park we may visit only once per year, is paying for the $300 commercial use authorization plus the per-person entrance fee worth the cost?”


The plan

Gettysburg monument

The National Park Service (NPS) has been working since 2017 on a means of increasing revenue to help address an estimated $11.3 billion backlog in maintenance and facility upgrades. The first proposal would have doubled or tripled entrance fees at the most popular parks to increase revenues by $70 million annually but was rejected last year after resounding disapproval during a public comment period. This spring, NPS revealed a new plan requiring tour operators to obtain a $300 commercial use authorization (CUA) for each of the 419 parks they plan to visit, adding 302 parks that do not currently require CUAs.

Passenger fees will be increased at 35 parks that now charge them, resulting in charges of $10, $15 or $20. At parks without passenger fees, a $5 “management fee” will be assessed.

At the end of the year operators will be required to file annual reports for every CUA they hold, even for parks they did not visit. NPS has promised to have an online CUA application service available by Oct. 1, but individual parks will still be permitted to impose site-specific conditions.


Too costly?

“Passengers are not going to like the increased costs,” Moody said. “It already is a fine line as to when the cost of a trip will sell and when it is perceived as too high by customers. Tours with multiple national parks are going to increase in price greatly and we worry that those tours are no longer going to sell.”

Many of today’s national park visitors are from China and the Pacific Rim, and whether companies booking those tours can increase prices enough to offset fees is unknown, said Tim Stout, president of Stout’s Transportation in Trenton, New Jersey. “My guess is there will be fewer visits. Let’s hope the increases don’t discourage inbound travel.”


“Major headache”

“Typically, government agencies underestimate the ‘hassle factor,'” Stout said. “The burdensome permit system with variable rules and pricing may result in us making the determination that some parks — or perhaps all—are just not worth the hassle and manpower. The days of bus and motorcoach companies ignoring back-office costs are long gone and increased government bureaucracy is reflected in charter rates.”

Tour operators in the middle of the country, where fewer national parks are located, may suffer little effect from the NPS changes, said Dennis Streif, vice president of Vandalia Bus Lines in Caseyville, Illinois.

Streif questioned the feasibility of permit and fee requirements at parks that do not have well-defined entrance points. For example, he pointed to Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, a few miles from his headquarters.

The Arch grounds sit between downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi River with sidewalks on three sides. “It would be difficult to collect a fee unless they have two guards, one at the top (on the downtown side) and one on the riverfront,” Streif said.

The expansive Gettysburg National Military Park, covering more than nine square miles and crossed by dozens of streets and highways, would pose greater challenges, Bailey said. “People drive across the battlefield all the time. How are they going to police that?”


What’s next?

“Congress will need to exercise oversight and restore the original intent of the parks,” Stout said. “NPS superintendents, well-intentioned or not, are treating the taxpayers who own these parks as pawns in commercial ventures to shore up funding shortfalls.

“Restricting the parks to the elite who can afford access will ultimately not sit well with voters. As a member of the United Motorcoach Association board of directors, I want to assure members that we are making Congress aware.”

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