Want to hear some good news?
On the heels of a year so completely immersed in negative news headlines, it’s time for some solid, bonafide positive news: The 2009 U.S. summer camping season seems to have exceeded expectations in many cases, especially for parks that aren’t located in remote locales. That’s the message from several articles in the upcoming issue of Woodall’s Campground Management, sister publication to RVBusiness and RVBUSINESS.COM.
“Reports that the economy still stinks are in direct conflict with what our members are telling us,” said Mark Anderson, chairman of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) and a veteran New York State campground owner. “Of course there is legitimate concern, though many of our members are reporting average to good business.“
Leisure Systems Inc., franchisors for the Yogi Bear Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, reports revenues up 5% for the season. In fact, several resorts that added waterparks to their facilities saw revenues soar more than 50% this year, reported Dean Crawford, LSI vice president. Some franchisees posted business gains of as much as 10 to 20%, while others reported flat business. On the other hand, Jellystone parks located in out-of-the-way locations tended to register more disappointing results.
Jim Rogers, chairman of Kampgrounds of America Inc., declares in an article in this same issue that the Montana-based park network is seeing a strong resurgence in all types of camping — tents, cabins and RVs – and that camper occupancy this year is on par with 2007, the best year in KOA’s 47-year history.”
All told, the great American outdoors has never looked better to U.S. travelers.
The statistics bear this out.
Nationally, campground reservations in the first six months of 2009 rose 8% over last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. The sale of fishing licenses nationwide is up 7% this year. Outdoor equipment store REI reported sales of family tents up by 20%.
The national park system, spurred by three “fee-free weekends,” is headed for a record-breaking year in 2009 if current travel trends hold up. Nearly 232 million people have already visited national park sites this year with recreational visits in ’09 up almost 5% vs. the first nine months of 2008, ABC News reports. If visitation stays strong through year’s end, in fact, the parks could see more than 288 million visitors for ’09, topping the previous records of more than 287 milllion in 1987 and 1999, the National Park Service (NPS) confirms.
Yellowstone National Park, in itself, had a record number of visitors in July, with over 900,000, up from about 800,000, in July 2008.
Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was up this summer for the first time in almost a decade. Smoky Mountain visitation so far this year was up 6.2% over last year at press time. The park’s strongest month of the summer was June, which registered a whopping 11% increase over June 2008, according to the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel.
Glacier National Park just finished its busiest summer in 15 years, tallying 1.47 million visitors through its entrance stations in June, July and August, according to the dailyinterlake.com — the highest summer visitor total since 1994, when 1.5 million visitors entered the park during the peak season.
What’s up with all this good news?
“Generally, in times of economic turmoil, national parks are seen as being a great value, and people really connect with the parks as a place to go,” says Jeffey G. Olson, a spokesman.
Meanwhile, WCM Contributor Bob Ashley, sampling private campground owners across the nation in his monthly “On Campgrounds” column, finds a consistent pattern. For instance, Ozark RV Park in Mountain View, Ark., owner Andy Rutledge tells Ashley that his 73-site park had the best summer season since he bought the park nine years ago.
Yellowstone Park KOA in West Yellowstone, Mont., experienced a good year, too, although people are being more frugal. ”Occupancy has been quite high this year,” said manager John Dutton. ”But store and auxiliary sales are not there. People are not going into the restaurants as much and not buying as many souvenirs. People are traveling, but they aren’t spending their dollars.”
Even with a challenged economy and bad weather early, Dan Adams, owner of Lake Bohoseen Campground in Bohoseen, Vt., was pleased with the results at his 140-site park. ”I think we did quite well,” said Adams, whose park also sells travel trailers and recreational park trailers. ”We were way down in May and June, but July and August turned around when the weather got better. We ended up about even with last year.”
Even in two Midwestern states hard hit by the recession, there were encouraging signs. Michigan park operators seem to have held their own in 2009, reported the Detroit News. Many destinations reported little change from last year, a small victory for resort operators who feared the state’s escalating unemployment rate – now at 15% – and fallout from the auto industry’s collapse would keep budget-conscious consumers away.
Ohio State Parks data from mid-July show camping has increased by over 15% from last year, and getaway rentals – ranging from platform tents to camper cabins – also are up by almost 5%.
After a down year in 2008, visitation numbers at Glacier National Park are on the rebound, propelling the park to a strong January through June period where visitor numbers were up more than 14% from the same time last year, according to the Flathead (Mont.) Beacon.
The National Park Service (NPS) Statistics Office reported that 327,572 people entered the national park last month, up 14.1% from about 287,000 visitors in June 2008. May was also a busy month for Glacier, with visitation up 20% from the May before.
In all, the NPS says 484,458 visitors flocked to Glacier during the first six months of the year. “Comparing month-to-month, we’ve been up so far this year,” Wade Muehlhof, a public information officer with the park, said. “That’s a good sign for the rest of the summer.”
In the early 1990s, the park enjoyed a robust period where its visitors topped 2 million for four consecutive years. Since then, however, annual visitation numbers have only hit that mark twice, including the 2007 season where there were 2,083,329 guests.
So far, though, this year appears to be back on track — good news for the businesspeople of Flathead’s tourism industry who rely on Glacier as their perennial ace to draw summer visitors.
“The Glacier Park numbers are our indicators,” Dori Muehlhof, executive director of the Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau, said, adding that lodging businesses are reporting solid bookings for July as well.
Damage from a huge avalanche that swept across the Sun Road in early January threatened to keep the popular scenic road from opening on time again. But road crews had travelers on their way by June 26. Gas prices have stayed considerably lower so far this year as well, hovering around $2.60 per gallon last week as compared to about $4.17 the same time last year. Good weather and a lack of fires has helped, too.
Park officials also attribute the increase partly to the fact that people can tailor their Glacier trips to their budgetary constraints.
“It does provide an affordable way to vacation,” Wade Muehlhof said. “People are able to choose more carefully how they spend their money.”
Year-to-date park statistics back up that theory. Overnight stays in the park’s lodges decreased about 1% in the first six months of this year compared to last year. Meanwhile, the number of people staying in tents and recreational vehicles increased 21% and 35%, respectively, up to 15,400 and 18,984 people.
“There’s a term out there now that’s ‘staycations,’ people vacation close to home,” Wade Muehlhof said. “I think that’s exactly what those numbers reflect.”
Yellowstone on Record Pace
Meanwhile, Yellowstone National Park is on pace for a record-setting year. More than 1.3 million travelers flocked to the park during the first six months of this year.
In June alone, about 644,000 people entered Yellowstone, up 8.5% from the same time last year. It was the only time in the park’s history besides June 2007 when visitors exceeded 600,000 for the month.
Year-to-date, the number of recreational visitors in the nation’s first national park is up 9.3% from last year.
As both parks enter the height of their summer seasons, July and August, park officials and the businesspeople who rely on the national landmarks to fill their registers with summer tourism dollars are hoping the early summer trends continue.