The National Parks Promotion Council (NPPC) held a first-ever Park Visitor Research Summit in Yosemite National Park Jan. 7-8. Some 70 participants came from the National Park Service (NPS), a dozen universities and colleges, concessions companies, park-related businesses, state tourism agencies and non-profit organizations working with national parks to serve visitors.
Substantial support for the meeting was provided by Delaware North Companies, the principal concessioner in Yosemite National Park.
At the summit, Greg Dunn, executive vice president at YPartnership, delivered a briefing to park visitor researchers from the 2010 Portrait of the American Traveler Survey, according to a news release. The survey is conducted annually, and the data for the 2010 edition was collected in the first quarter of 2010.
Dunn told the group that the survey focuses on households of $50,000-plus income, and the 2010 survey is based upon just over 2,500 active leisure travelers (at least one leisure trip in the previous year. This constitutes 55% of the total U.S. population. Of this group, 66% express an interest in visiting a national park. This group is mostly male (56%) and Caucasian (82%, versus 3% African American).
The survey suggested two seemingly contradictory developments.
First, the “Great Recession” has permanently altered travel attitudes of many Americans and especially Boomers. They are now more focused on value, and they are waiting longer to commit to travel plans. They use the Internet to be knowledgeable purchasers of leisure travel.
The inconsistency? Travelers today are actually happier than they were 10 years ago — 80% of these travelers report that economic adversity has prompted a new focus on priorities. They are proudly cost-conscious. Dunn labeled them as believing that “cheaper is chic-er.”
Of the park-interested travelers, Florida and California are top destinations, and 33% will travel internationally. These same travelers are environmentally consciousness, but show very limited willingness to pay for “green travel.”
Of the prime park travelers:
- 73% say life has become too complicated.
- Twice as many have an interest in spas as golf.
- 81% report planning a vacation around a “life event” – a birthday or anniversary or wedding or retirement – to create memories.
- National parks rank high as a dream destination (#2, at 66%), because they meet key traveler goals such as “beauty” (84%) and “safe” (82%). On the other hand, a key goal for many travelers is something new – and national parks rarely highlight new offerings.
Contact information for Greg Dunn is: firstname.lastname@example.org, (407) 838-1828.
The national park system is headed for a record-breaking number of visitors this year if travel trends hold up.
Nearly 232 million people have already visited national park sites this year, with recreational visits in 2009 up almost 5% compared to the first nine months of 2008, according to ABC News.
If visitation stays strong through year’s end, the parks could see more than 288 million visitors for 2009, topping the previous records of more than 287 million visitors in 1987 and 1999, according to National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey G. Olson.
Ken Burns’ new series about the national parks, “America’s Best Idea,” which debuts on PBS Sept. 27, is expected to help keep interest in the parks high for the rest of the year. “We think it’s the neatest thing since sliced bread,” Olson said.
But other factors have already contributed to bringing in 13 million more people through August of this year compared to January-August 2008.
President Obama’s inauguration in January kicked off the year by bumping up tourist numbers to park sites like the National Mall and monuments in Washington, D.C. Then the reopening of some portions of Gulf Islands National Seashore, off the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, added another 3 million to park visitation, according to Olson.
Low gas prices and an increased interest in regional, inexpensive vacations also brought more folks to the parks. “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,” Olson said.
Obama’s visit with his family to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone added even more buzz, and three fee-free weekends this summer encouraged more people to visit the parks too. (Fees were also being waived on Sept. 26, which is National Public Lands Day.)
Olson said October is a big month for travel as well, especially among retirees and in parts of the country where there is fall foliage.
Officials at national parks across the U.S. are trying to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by cleaning up their own operations, with the help of federal stimulus dollars, according to Associated Press.
“We know we have to green our own house,” said Sonya Capek, the Pacific West region’s environmental program coordinator. “It’s part of our mission to protect and preserve the resources.”
The National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have started the Climate Friendly Parks network program to help parks address climate change. Parks must measure their amounts of emissions, come up with plans to curb them and educate the public on what they can do to help.
Seventeen parks, including the Everglades in Florida and Fire Island National Seashore in New York, have already created plans. Sixty parks are developing their own plans.
National parks, like other federal agencies, have already been under orders to reduce energy and gasoline use. But the Obama administration has pushed greening parts of government further, including replacing government fleets with more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.
Parks are turning down thermostats and sealing windows, providing loaner bikes to employees and installing food composting and recycling bins.
One recent morning at Mount Rainier, workers climbed atop the park’s emergency operations center and installed 48 solar panels to provide energy to the building. They have also added dual-flush toilets that reduce water use and use electric vehicles to pick up trash at campgrounds.
“The goal is really to knock (down) our carbon footprint,” said Jim Fuller, the park’s energy coordinator.
Each year, Mount Rainier creates greenhouse gas emissions equal to about 1,100 households. Visitors to Mount Rainier account for two-thirds of the 12,170 metric tons the park emits each year, mostly in driving to the park and inside it.
Federal stimulus dollars are giving national parks a boost in their efforts. Of $750 million for national parks, there’s stimulus money for energy-efficient windows at Alabama’s Russell Cave, wind turbines at Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic and solar panels at Georgia’s Cumberland Island.
Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park may soon hop on hydrogen-powered shuttles, while those visiting parts of Golden Gate National Recreation Area will find mostly organic food grown within 30 miles rather than shipped from across the country. Rocky Mountain National Park runs shuttles so backpackers don’t have to drive to trailheads. Other parks such as Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are asking visitors to do their part with tours, education programs and public awareness campaigns.
“We’re basically trying, without hitting people over the head, to say this is an issue,” said Bob Krumenaker, Apostle Islands’ superintendent.
Rainier acting superintendent Randy King said the park doesn’t want to discourage visitors. “It’s very important that people enjoy the parks and make a personal connection.” So the park is looking in-house first to conserve where it can.
“We need to set a good example and do what we can,” he said.
Roger Scott, from Southfield, Mich., said he’s noticed solar panels at several national parks he visited since retiring last year.
“Parks get used an awful lot and they’re going to get used even more,” he said, adding that now is a good time to start thinking about human impact to the parks.
It’s unclear whether parks can realistically become carbon neutral through conservation alone or without buying offsets, but park officials say the expectation for now is get as close as possible.
“It’s OK to have a difficult goal,” King said. “It’s important that we take it seriously.”