A well-intentioned move to promote sustainability in US national parks is backfiring for the tour operators that offer those destinations.
The reservation system, introduced at some of the more popular national parks earlier this year, often allows reservations to be made within days or even hours of a park visit. It was created to limit the high volume of visitors and better conserve natural resources.
But this is causing tour operators who book months in advance to lose bookings due to the short booking window, especially for international travelers who book anywhere from six months to a year in advance.
“If a family has long dreamed of visiting the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone and has planned, saved and planned their trip well in advance, they want to know that their park reservations are reserved and secure,” said Simon Russell , CEO of Authentic Vacations. . “When we work with local national park suppliers and day tour operators and they can’t guarantee us a reservation within one of the parks, then we can’t give them the business and everyone loses — the traveler, us and local supplier.”
Additionally, most reservations must be made for parks that request them through Recreation.gov, a platform that National Tourism Association (NTA) President Catherine Prather says is best suited for individual or family travelers and “is not designed for groups or tour operators”. “
“Seventy-six percent of our tour operators pack the parks,” Prather said. “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 calling on the US Department of the Interior 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 US Travel Association and signed by 388 members of the travel industry was recently sent to the secretary of the interior and the director of the National Park Service (NPS) calling for the reservation system to allow reservations that could are made 10 to 12 months in advance. . The signatories represented hotels, cruise lines, destinations and tour providers.
The industry also wants a reservation system implemented that is consistent across all national parks.
“Instead of having one national clearance office for all NPS sites, each park creates its own reservation system with different rules, forms and fees,” Prather said. “A tour operator may need to issue payments and submit documents for every single national park it visits during the year. All tour operators, whether big brands or small businesses, are challenged with patchy booking systems that vary from park to park. It’s an administrative burden and a challenge.”
Extending the booking window and unifying the booking process is “crucial”, says US Travel, and will support domestic travel, which has been slower to recover than domestic travel, with international travel down 78% in 2021.
“National parks are an undeniable draw for international travelers as well,” the letter said. “Out-of-state travelers accounted for 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 aren’t entirely new to national parks: Many such measures were introduced in 2020 to curb overcrowding and limit vehicle traffic when visitor volumes increased, largely because activities outdoors were widely favored and international travel was either not an option or severely limited due to the pandemic.
But the reservation system introduced this summer was a sticking point for tour operators, presenting challenges beyond booking park visits.
“They also add a layer of complexity for tour operators looking to book reservations for meals, excursions and guided tours for their groups staying inside the parks,” said Joanne Gardner, vice president of worldwide operations for Tauck.
As frustrating as it has been, tour operators want to work with the park service to find solutions and be involved in the decision-making process on issues that directly affect their business and impact the recovery of the travel industry.
“State parks should definitely be on every traveler’s bucket list,” said Matt Berna, president of Intrepid Travel-North America. He said sending tourists to less-traveled state parks is a viable solution to slowing the volume at more popular national parks. “Many state parks offer iconic sights and landmarks, fantastic active adventures, and unparalleled wildlife. Plus, you’ll likely avoid the crowds you might find in national parks.”
“What we share in our meetings with the parks and NPS is that tour operators can be part of the solution,” Prather said, adding that using buses to move groups in and out of parks is an efficient way to reduce the volume of vehicles and traffic issues and that the “very nature” of a tour operator’s business is group management.
“Come to us,” she added. “We will provide on-the-ground insight into tour operations and why what is currently in place or what is proposed will not work for tour operators and their customers.”