A well-intended measure to promote sustainability at U.S. national parks is backfiring for the tour operators that offer those destinations.
The reservation system, introduced at some of the most popular national parks earlier this year, often only allows bookings to be made within a few days or even hours of a park visit. It was designed to limit high visitor volume and better preserve natural resources.
But it is causing tour operators, who book months in advance, to lose bookings due to the short reservation window, especially for international travelers, who book anywhere from six months to a year ahead.
“If a family has long dreamed of visiting the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone and has planned, saved and scheduled their trip well in advance, they want to know their reservations to the park are booked and secure,” said Simon Russell, CEO of Authentic Vacations. “When we work with local national park suppliers and day tour operators and they cannot guarantee us a booked reservation within one of the parks, then we can’t give them the business and everyone loses — the traveler, us and the local supplier.”
In addition, most reservations must be made for parks that require them through Recreation.gov, a platform that National Tour Association (NTA) president Catherine Prather says is better suited for individual or family travelers and is “not designed for groups or tour operators.”
“Seventy-six percent of our tour operators package the parks,” Prather said. “The national parks are an important component or stand-alone feature of many NTA tour operators’ tours and packages.”
Foreign and domestic travel industry leaders are openly calling on the U.S. Interior Department to reform the reservation system and work with tour operators to find solutions that benefit visitors and also preserve the parks.
A letter drafted by the U.S. Travel Association and signed by 388 members of the travel industry was recently sent to the interior secretary and National Park Service (NPS) director calling for the reservation system to allow bookings that can be made 10 to 12 months in advance. The signees represented hotels, cruise lines, destinations and tour providers.
The industry also wants a reservation system to be implemented that is consistent across all the national parks.
“Instead of having a national clearinghouse for all NPS sites, each park sets up its own reservation system with varying rules, forms and fees,” Prather said. “One tour operator might have to issue payments and file paperwork for every single national park they visit over the course of the year. All tour operators, whether they are large brands or small businesses, are challenged with patchwork reservation systems that vary from park to park. It’s an administrative burden and challenge.”
Extending the reservations window and unifying the reservation process is “crucial,” U.S. Travel says, and will support inbound travel, which has been slower to recover than domestic, with international travel down 78% in 2021.
“National parks are an undeniable attraction for international travelers, too,” the letter said. “Overseas travelers made up more than a third (35%) of the 327 million visitors to national parks in 2019.”
An added ‘layer of complexity’
Reservation requirements and timed-entry systems are not entirely new to national parks: Many such measures were introduced in 2020 to curb overtourism and limit vehicle traffic when visitor volume soared, largely because outdoor activities were widely favored and international travel was either not an option or heavily restricted due to the pandemic.
But the reservation system introduced this summer was the tipping point for tour operators, introducing challenges beyond reserving park visits.
“They also add a layer of complexity for tour operators looking to book reservations for meals, hikes and guided visits for their groups staying inside the parks,” said Joanne Gardner, vice president of worldwide operations for Tauck.
Frustrating as it has been, tour operators want to work with the park service to find solutions and be included in the decision-making process for matters that directly affect their business and impact the travel industry’s recovery.
“State parks should definitely be on every traveler’s bucket list,” said Matt Berna, president of Intrepid Travel-North America. He said that driving tourists to less-traveled state parks is a viable solution to slow volume at the most popular national parks. “Many state parks offer iconic views and landmarks, fantastic active adventures and unparalleled wildlife. Plus, you are likely to avoid the crowds that you might find in national parks.”
“What we share in our meetings with the parks and the NPS is that tour operators can be part of the solution,” Prather said, adding that using motorcoaches to shuttle groups in and out of the parks is an efficient way to reduce vehicle volume and traffic issues and that the “very nature” of a tour operator’s business is managing groups.
“Come to us,” she added. “We will provide on-the-ground insight about tour operations and why what is currently in place or what is proposed will not work for tour operators and their clients.”
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