The U.S. National Park Service has been welcoming tourists into its monuments, parks and sites for more than 100 years – with record visitation in many cases. But when it comes to courting the travel industry and working with travel brands to understand tourism trends and expectations, some park service officials admit this is a work in progress.

For decades, the park service wasn’t working with surrounding communities and travel brands to communicate its economic impact on local populations, and the environmental impact of travelers on its properties.

That’s in large part because the park service is still educating itself on what its role is in the tourism industry, said John Slaughter, acting superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia.

“The park service has been doing tourism through osmosis for the past 100 years,” said Slaughter. “We begged people to come [for the centennial anniversary] and we made a huge effort and they came out but we hadn’t prepared ourselves as tourism professionals to manage that incredible amount of folks.”

Like many other destinations, the park service is trying to figure out how to get people to visit for multiple days rather than just a day visit and how to encourage people to spend more time and spread their wallet around more in surrounding communities, said Chris Abbett, the park service’s associate regional director for partnerships, interpretation and education for the U.S. Southeast.

“During the last 10 to 15 years, I think we understand our role in the tourism spectrum a lot better,” said Abbett. “And I think we’ve gotten more comfortable with working more with partners and I think for our present generation of superintendents in our region, tourism partners is one of their top goals. They recognize that they’re part of an array of resources in the area.”

Visitors Versus Tourists Is A Big Deal

But perhaps one of the biggest epiphanies for the park service has been realizing that calling people visitors contributed to many parks remaining largely isolated from their local tourism industries for decades. “We were calling people visitors but they’re tourists so to recognize that they’re actually tourists helped us become more engaged in local tourism planning,” said Abbett.

National Parks and sites are increasingly taking cues from tourism boards on how to work with the travel industry and market its offerings, which was largely absent at many parks in the past.

Utah’s Zion National Park, for example, formed a relationship with the local Springdale, Utah Office of Tourism board in 2015 to start an ongoing dialogue with the organization and local residents about how increasing visitation at the park impacts their lives.

“We want people to understand that we’re not Disneyland and that a national park experience is very different,” said Jack Burns, chief of commercial services and partnerships at Zion. “We recently met with the CVB in Springdale to hear concerns of business owners and we understand their concerns and as part of our planning process to address visitor growth there will be an economic impact analysis done in nearby communities,” he said.

Slaughter, who said he’s observed more interaction between southeast parks and tourism boards, said the most common question from tourism boards he’s been talking to is “how can we help?”

“And for the most part we haven’t framed that answer yet,” he said. “In many cases, we don’t know what we don’t know. We need to be open to admit that working with local communities is still not something that we do well.”

Generating revenue has been a taboo subject for the park service in the past, said Slaughter, so tourism boards are helping some parks figure it out. “Tourism boards are helping us to figure that out how we market to a new generation of travelers and the PR around that and what that means for the visitor,” he said. “Everything I’ve heard from the DMOs [Destination Marketing Organizations] is ‘help us help you’ and then also ‘let’s find a way to say yes.'”

But it’s that lack of revenue that’s in part kept many parks from having adequate staffing levels to manage visitor flows and keep up with infrastructure improvements and maintenance.

Last year, visitor spending at national parks had a direct economic impact of $14.5 billion on the U.S. economy that helped support more than 200,000 jobs, according to the National Park Service.

Spending at Southeast parks, which include Mammoth Cave National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, had the second largest regional economic impact in 2016 at more than $6 billion. The Intermountain region, which includes Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, had the largest regional economic impact last year at more than $6.7 billion.

But it’s clear much of that economic impact isn’t making its way back to many parks to help hire more staff. Smaller parks or sites may only have six to 10 staff, said Abbett. “There’s not an expectation plan in place to increase staffing levels on the national level.”

“Southeast parks are different because they have a year-round season so it’s harder for us to say we’ll just staff up with seasonals in the summer,” said Abbett. “We’ve tried to partner with some organizations to do that and some of our parks have tried to collaborate with these partners when we know we’ll have higher busier seasons. During times when we’re overloaded with visitors, some associations have also put in plans to lead educational activities.”

The Future of National Parks’ Funding

The park service has a reason to be optimistic about attracting more funding if it can be nimble with developing more public/private partnerships, said Slaughter.

“Public/private partnerships are the next wave of our organization,” said Slaughter. “Our partnership leadership is really starting to reach out to the DMOs to ask them to help us really figure this out.”

The park service’s centennial celebration in 2016 also spurred donations, more than doubling National Park Foundation contributions from $73.5 million in 2015 to more than $150 million in 2016.

The Trump administration has presented itself as very public/private partnership-oriented, said Slaughter and he feels there’s never been a time when the park service was more relevant.

“We haven’t been getting more money from Congress so we have to rely on these public/private partnerships even more,” said Slaughter. “These partnerships will be our most prudent measure to find success. The tourism industry has been managing crowds for decades and I think we can take some cues from tourism professionals because they’re the ones who’ve been doing this.”

The White House, however, announced earlier this summer that 27 national monuments were under review and at risk for having their status stripped. President Donald Trump has insisted that the millions of acres designated for protection by the Obama administration were part of a massive federal land grab. Trump’s review has done little to signal that his administration will be a supporter of the park service.

The private sector also can’t be counted on as a partner as some companies are more concerned about their bottom lines than the environmental impact when it comes to the parks.

“Until recently I don’t think there was a strong understanding among the private sector of their role in the sustainability of these parks,” said Bill Hardman, president and CEO of the Southeast Tourism Society, a non-profit organization that works with tourism boards and partners in 12 Southeast states such as Florida and Georgia to promote tourism. “I don’t think [the private sector] was as knowledgeable as they should have been about economic development around these parks.”

Driving More Visits to Lesser-Known Parks

As the public and private sectors become more aware of the park service and its needs, this year’s focus is on growing awareness and visitation to lesser-known parks that aren’t suffering from overcrowding versus driving general awareness of all parks that was one of the goals of last year’s centennial.

Launched earlier this year, the “Parks 101” campaign is about showing travelers parks and places that they might not be as familiar with. “We’re working very closely with our state parks system to also help promote those opportunities as well,” said Slaughter.

“We have communities that are 30 to 50 miles away from a park or site that will call themselves a gateway community because they have some historical connection to it,” he said. “We’re also tapping into the Ancestry.com movement and genealogical research and looking at doing family ancestral reunions to grow interest in people’s personal connections to these parks and sites.”

Visitation to lesser-known parks and sites in the southeast, such as those with only a few thousand visitors a year, increased by 10 percent year-over-year in 2016, said Hardman. Parks having better relationships with tourism boards is a big factor in visitors discovering these offbeat parks, he said. “We used last year’s centennial to create awareness in DMOs and I think we’ve bridged that gap in our region,” he said.

Abbett said the park service’s southeast region worked with the regional AAA chapter to help travelers create itineraries that link groups of lesser-known parks together. The southeast region has also been active in the park service’s Urban Agenda project and recently used Jacksonville, Florida as a model community for understanding how the park service can better connect with urban audiences and environments.

The park service is generally more associated with expansive landscapes, for example, and not as well-established in urban areas, and where sites and monuments are not as well-known.

Indeed, attracting more visitors — ahem, tourists — to smaller and off-the-beaten-path parks and sites will likely boost local economies that are starving for more tourism dollars. But while, at least at the park level, conversations have started about how to manage a tourism growth problem that’s unlikely to subside, it’s apparent that the national office and local parks still aren’t singing the same tune when it comes to destination management.

Crowded Parks Are Trying to Put Plans in Place

Overtourism is beginning to reach a boiling point at parks like Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Golden Gate but each park has its unique problems with overcrowding and strains on infrastructure from tourists, said Donny Leadbetter, the National Park Service’s tourism program manager.

Leadbetter said that at California’s Yosemite National Park, for example, some three to four million tourists visit the park each year but most of them mainly go to the Yosemite Valley section of the park and leave much of the rest of the park untouched.

Managing tourism growth has traditionally been handled at the park level, but Leadbetter said during the past two years the National Park Service recognizes the need for the national office to get more involved. “Visitation to the parks really kind of peaked in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” he said. “But then really starting in the late 2000s is when visitation started to skyrocket.”

Last year, more than 331 million tourists visited the park service’s 417 parks, sites and monuments, a seven percent increase over 2015 and a record for the park service. In 2016, 77 parks set new records for annual recreation visits and four parks received more than 10 million recreation visits.

But many parks and sites are straining under the impact from thousands to millions of annual visitors — the park service’s infrastructure maintenance backlog is currently $12 billion. “In general, I think it’s fair to say that we really struggle,” said Leadbetter.

Zion is experiencing such high levels of crowding that it’s considering implementing a reservation system where tourists would need to reserve a timed entry to explore the park. Other parks like Maine’s Acadia National Park are considering whether to restrict the kind of transportation options that visitors can use to explore the park.

Last year, Yellowstone National Park, for example, carried out a visitor use study and a transportation and vehicle mobility study to learn how visitors are experiencing and moving about the park.

But even if such a system is added at Zion it’ll take years to get the park to where it needs to be, said Burns. “One thing we’re very concerned with right now is monitoring comments on social media like Facebook and we’ve really seen an increase in complaints that visitors are sharing with us,” said Burns.

“When they’re planning their vacations online to come and visit Zion they have high expectations but no one is telling them that you could sit in line for 45 minutes just to get into the entrance and then stand in line with 300 other people to board a shuttle bus. And then stand in line all day to use restrooms and repeat all that at the end of the day,” he said.

Burns said visitation to the park has grown 60 percent during the past 10 years with nearly 4.3 million visitors last year (one million more visits than 2015). The comment period for the proposed reservation system closed on August 14 and the park received more than 1,600 comments from people in 43 different U.S. states, according to Burns. He said the plan is to decide whether the park will add a reservation system by early next year. If a reservation system is implemented, it would be phased in.

The vast majority of people who visit the park plan their visit online, said Burns, and tour operators, tourism boards and travel agents, can help improve the visitor experience and expectations at Zion by getting the message out about wait times and a potential reservation system.

Tourism boards, though, should shoulder some of the blame for visitation at some national parks reaching unmanageable proportions. Marketing these parks and surrounding attractions accordingly, such as suggesting less-popular times of day or year to visit a park, is certainly something a tourism board could do with or without a great relationship with a particular park.

Photo Credit: The U.S. National Park Service is trying to catch up with managing visitor growth across its system. Pictured are tourists at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Ben Clark / Flickr