The sun sets as a rain storm blows over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab on September 18, 2021. As visitation to U.S. national parks hit record highs in 2021, travel companies and hospitality and associations inside and outside the United States are not satisfied with the National Park Service’s reservation systems. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)
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SALT LAKE CITY – As attendance at U.S. national parks hit record highs in 2021, travel and hospitality businesses and associations inside and outside the U.S. are unhappy with the systems of National Park Service reservation.
They say these reservation systems may “threaten to block the resumption of international inbound travel”.
Hundreds of travel and leisure companies and travel associations signed a letter acknowledging their displeasure, which the US Travel Association sent last week to Secretary of the Interior Department Deb Haaland and Director of the Department of Chuck Sams National Parks. The Tourism Industry Association of Utah and a handful of Utah-based businesses co-signed the letter.
“Inbound travel cannot fully resume until international travelers can reliably plan their visits to our national parks,” the letter reads in part.
International travel accounted for just over a third of visits to national parks in 2019, attracting more than 100 million visitors. Everything has all but disappeared in the months following the COVID-19 pandemic that led to shutdowns in the United States in March 2020. With restrictions, at the beginning, and now economic problems that can hinder travel, the recovery has been slow.
The letter suggests another reason for the difficulty of international travel: reservations or other newer policies at national parks.
Many policies have been created to address overcrowding in parks or at least parts of the United States, where domestic travel has fueled increased visitation. The US Travel Association acknowledges this, and the park’s staffing issues, in the letter. However, they say it also unintentionally creates barriers to international travel.
“Reservation systems with short booking windows and inconsistent procedures are unsustainable for international travelers and international tour operators, many of whom plan their travel a full year in advance,” the letter states. “As we emerge from the pandemic and inbound travel resumes, it is imperative that reservations are allowed 10-12 months in advance. It is also imperative that reservation systems are consistent across parks that put them in place. work.”
The Utah Tourism Industry Association supported the letter because the policies can impact international travel to Utah, said Natalie Randall, the association’s executive director. Record attendance at Utah’s national parks last year eventually led to Arches National Park’s advanced timed entry system and permit lottery system to climb to the top of Angels Landing in Zion National Park which started this year.
Randall is quick to point out that the Utah association appreciates that Arches National Park has excluded tour operator coaches and buses from the timed entry system it is testing this year, which helps tourists know that they will have access to the park when planning their trip.
Visitation to Utah’s national and state parks is down from the same time last year. But Randall adds that it’s still too early to tell if there are any travel impacts related to the new reservation or timed entry systems, or how severe the impacts might be.
Any decline could be the result of elevated global inflation and gas prices, or even lingering COVID-19 concerns. It’s also possible that increases in 2021 are the result of Americans unable to travel abroad, and any decreases in 2022 are the result of Americans traveling outside the country again.
“We’ve seen a decrease in even general visits compared to what we saw last year year over year; and I would attribute that, at least nationally, to higher prices gasoline,” she said, adding that there have also been reduced marketing efforts in various parts of the state.
Still, given the importance of international travel to the travel and hospitality industries, Utah travel experts say more needs to be done to make it easier for international travelers to book trips in the state.
Randall says international travel is still “important” to many Utah communities, especially those that rely on tourism. Communities near Utah National Park are still experiencing lulls as international travel has not fully returned.
“That’s pretty important and critical to a lot of our destinations in Utah, especially our recreation destinations,” she said.
The July 11 letter concludes that the travel industry is “ready to partner” with the park service on ways to meet the agency’s interests while bringing visitors to the country. In response to the letter, National Park Service spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles wrote in a statement to KSL.com that the agency always strives to provide “exceptional and memorable experiences for all visitors.”
“We welcome feedback from the travel industry, community residents and visitors as we adjust and improve these management tools, and evaluate ways to ensure consistent and clear expectations for visitors planning trips. in the park,” his statement continued. “We look forward to our continued communication with the travel industry on matters of mutual interest.”