The park service has dramatically changed its tune during the past year and acknowledged that overtourism is something it must address – all while its leadership has stirred trouble. But the parks have a long road to travel before they can command a reasonable balance of visitors who won't cause a conservation nightmare.
Many U.S. National Park Service officials have publicly pointed to the negative impact of overtourism during the past year, and they are considering reservation systems for some parks and other measures to address visitor growth.
While officials are mulling reservation systems for some parks to get a handle on overtourism, these aren’t imminent, said Donny Leadbetter, tourism program manager for the U.S. National Park Service.
More than 330 million people visited a park, monument or site part of the national park system last year, about the same as 2016. But visitors spent more than 1.4 billion hours in the parks, a 1.4 percent (19 million hours) increase year-over-year.
Some 61 of the 385 reporting parks (the park service has 417 parks and sites across the United States) set new visitation records last year (16 percent of reporting parks).
The 2017 visitation data released this week come after a chaotic year for the park service and Department of the Interior that oversees it. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who took office a year ago this week and was nominated by President Donald Trump, has sided with the oil industry over environmentalists and reassigned dozens of top park service managers to parts of the agency where they had no experience.
Zinke also suspended more than 200 park service committees and boards pending an internal review and most of the park service advisory board’s members quit in January out of frustration with Zinke.
Blue Ridge Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park were the most-visited of the park system with 16, 14.9, and 11.3 million visits, respectively. For national parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (11.3 million), Grand Canyon National Park (6.2 million), and Zion National Park (4.5 million) were the most-visited (see chart below).
Although visitation was about the same in 2017 and 2016, the crowds at popular parks likely in part tarnished the visitor experience for some travelers, said Leadbetter. “It’s hard to objectively look at some of these places at some times and think ‘that’s a great visitor experience,'” he said.
“Some parks are insanely crowded, almost like a theme park,” said Leadbetter. “In some of these most pressing places, it’s even beyond that. I think the travel industry agrees something must be done.”
Crowds at parks like Zion and Arches don’t present the natural experience the park service wants visitors to have, said Leadbetter. “Different people have different tolerances,” he said. “But in some parks, shuttle buses are beyond capacity and are dumping huge numbers of people onto trails all at once. Parking is also an issue in some parks.”
President Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget calls for a new fund to help tackle a $12 billion maintenance backlog at the parks that visitor growth has helped exacerbate. But the budget faces a long hurdle – the fiscal 2018 budget still hasn’t been passed – and is only a rough draft. It’s become clear that the president and other top lawmakers are using the park service as political leverage to advance other agendas.
Still, Zinke feels the proposed fund is a step in the right direction. “Our national parks are being loved to death,” he said in a statement. “As visitor rates continue at a high level, we must prioritize much-needed deferred maintenance including aging facilities, roads, and other critical infrastructure.”
Reservation Systems Are Work in Progress
Last year the park service said it’s considering implementing a reservation system in popular parks to control when, where, and how many people can enter on a daily basis. But 2017 data show visitation was basically the same year-over-year while the time spent in the parks increased, and a system that limits visitors but doesn’t account for time spent in the parks won’t solve the problem.
“The reservation systems are probably not happening this year, they’re at least a year or more away,” said Leadbetter. “We have online portals where we collect comments on plans and have community meetings. There are macro constraints that are out of the control of the travel industry.”
The park service hopes a reservation system would help visitors consider visiting during off-peak times of the year when parks aren’t as busy. But work and school schedules often dictate when people choose to visit, said Leadbetter.
“Many popular parks still have capacity but it’s clustered,” said Leadbetter. “Most people could be entering through one gate but other entrances of a park may have much more capacity. This isn’t about limiting access. If there’s a daily limit on entries, those limits are still collectively above what the numbers are now. And then there are situations like in the Grand Canyon where we only allow so many daily permits for rafting trips on the river.”
What Do Visitors Think?
Leadbetter said Arches and Acadia National Parks are two parks furthest along in collecting visitor data. Beyond tracking visitation, the park service wants to better understand how people actually feel about their visits.
The park service’s 2016 visitor satisfaction survey, the most recent data available, show that visitors that year were very satisfied with their experiences despite crowding and maintenance backlogs. The park service had more than 330 million visitors in 2016, a record high for the system.
The survey asked visitors to rate their overall satisfaction with the quality of facilities, services, and recreational opportunities available at parks. Some 98 percent of the more than 57,000 respondents said the quality of their experience was “very good and good” while only 2 percent said it was “average.”
Nearly 20 percent of the 334 parks, monuments and sites part of the survey had 100 percent satisfaction. Visitors weren’t specifically asked about crowds or quality of the infrastructure but neither were overwhelming factors in respondents’ answers.
Top 10 Most Visited National Parks, Monuments, And Other Sites in 2017
|Rank||Park||Recreation Visits||Deferred Maintenance|
|1||Blue Ridge Parkway||16,093,765||$186,619,608|
|2||Golden Gate National Recreation Area||14,981,897||$325,814,011|
|3||Great Smoky Mountains National Park||11,388,893||$64,049,392|
|4||Gateway National Recreation Area||9,190,610||$788,419,471|
|6||Lake Mead National Recreation Area||7,882,339||$205,540,564|
|7||George Washington Memorial Parkway||7,562,793||$233,441,316|
|8||Natchez Trace Parkway||6,326,062||$10,656,651|
|9||Grand Canyon National Park||6,254,238||$329,437,056|
|10||Vietnam Veterans Memorial||5,072,589||$625,250|
Top 10 Most Visited National Parks in 2017
|Rank||Park||Recreation Visits||Deferred Maintenance|
|1||Great Smoky Mountains National Park||11,388,893||$64,049,392|
|2||Grand Canyon National Park||6,254,238||$329,437,056|
|3||Zion National Park||4,504,812||$65,291,893|
|4||Rocky Mountain National Park||4,437,215||$84,234,245|
|5||Yosemite National Park||4,336,890||$582,670,827|
|6||Yellowstone National Park||4,116,524||$515,808,008|
|7||Acadia National Park||3,509,271||$59,858,099|
|8||Olympic National Park||3,401,996||$120,719,515|
|9||Grand Teton National Park||3,317,000||$178,630,525|
|10||Glacier National Park||3,305,512||$153,838,276|
Source: U.S. National Park Service
Photo credit: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, pictured here, was the most- visited U.S. National Park in 2017. dconvertini / Flickr