Why the travel industry wants national parks to adjust new reservation programs

The sun sets as a rainstorm blows over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab on Sept. 18, 2021. While visitation at U.S. national parks hit record highs in 2021, travel and hospitality companies and associations both inside and outside of the United States aren't happy with the National Park Service's reservation systems.

The sun sets as a rainstorm blows over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab on Sept. 18, 2021. While visitation at U.S. national parks hit record highs in 2021, travel and hospitality companies and associations both inside and outside of the United States aren't happy with the National Park Service's reservation systems. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



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SALT LAKE CITY — While visitation at U.S. national parks hit record highs in 2021, travel and hospitality companies and associations both inside and outside of the United States aren't happy with the National Park Service's reservation systems.

They say those reservation systems may "threaten to stall the recovery of international inbound travel."

Hundreds of travel and leisure businesses and travel associations signed a letter acknowledging their displeasure, which the U.S. Travel Association sent to Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and National Park Service Director Chuck Sams last week. The Utah Tourism Industry Association and a handful of Utah-based companies co-signed the letter.

"Inbound travel cannot fully resume until international travelers can reliably plan their visits to our national parks," the letter states, in part.

International travel accounted for a little more than one-third of national park visitation in 2019, bringing in over 100 million visitors. It all but disappeared in the months after the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in U.S. shutdowns in March 2020. With restrictions, at first, and now economic issues that may harm travel, it's been a slow recovery back.

The letter suggests another reason for international travel struggling: reservations or other newer policies at national parks.

Many of the policies were created to address overcrowding at parks or at least parts across the U.S., where domestic travel fueled higher visitation. The U.S. Travel Association acknowledges this, as well as park staffing issues, in the letter. However, they say it also unintentionally creates barriers to international travel.

"Reservation systems with short booking windows and inconsistent procedures are not workable for international travelers and international tour operators, many of whom plan for their travel a full year in advance," the letter states. "As we emerge from the pandemic and inbound travel resumes, it is imperative that reservations be allowed 10 to 12 months in advance. It is also imperative that reservation systems be consistent across parks that implement them."

The Utah Tourism Industry Association backed the letter because the policies may impact international travel to Utah, said Natalie Randall, the association's executive director. The record attendance at Utah national parks last year ultimately led to Arches National Park's advanced timed entry system and the permit lottery system to hike to the top of Angels Landing at Zion National Park that began this year.

Randall is quick to point out that the Utah association is appreciative that Arches National Park did exclude motorcoaches and tour operator buses from the timed entry system that it's testing this year, which does help tourists know they will have entry to the park as they plan their trip.

Visitations to Utah's national and state parks are down from this time last year. But Randall adds that it's still too early to tell if there are any travel impacts related to the new reservation or timed entry systems, or how severe any impacts might be.

Any declines could be a result of high global inflation and gas prices, or even from ongoing COVID-19 concerns. It's also possible that the increases in 2021 were a result of Americans who couldn't travel internationally, and any 2022 decreases are a result of Americans traveling out of the country again.

"We've seen a decrease even just in general visitation compared year-over-year to what we were seeing last year; and I'd attribute that, at least domestically, to higher gas prices," she said, adding there have also been some reduced marketing efforts in various parts of the state.

Yet given international travel's importance to the travel and hospitality industries, Utah travel experts say more must be done to make it easier for international travelers to book trips in the state.

Randall says international travel is still "significant" for a lot of Utah communities, especially ones that rely on tourism. The communities near Utah's national park are still experiencing some lulls because international travel isn't fully back.

"It's pretty important and critical for a lot of our destinations in Utah, especially our leisure-based destinations," she said.

The July 11 letter concludes that the travel industry is "ready to partner" with the park service on ways to meet the agency's interests while also bringing visitors into the country. In response to the letter, National Park Service spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles wrote in a statement to KSL.com that the agency always seeks to provide "outstanding and memorable experiences for all visitors."

"We appreciate the feedback from the travel sector, community residents and visitors as we adjust and improve these management tools, and as we evaluate ways to ensure consistent and clear expectations for visitors planning park trips," her statement continued. "We look forward to our continued communication with the travel industry on subjects of mutual interest."

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Utah travel and tourismUtah National ParksOutdoors & RecUtah
Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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