A proposal by the U.S. Department of Interior to more than double the cost of a seven-day pass to national parks might cause a big economic hit to the “gateway” communities around these important tourist attractions, according to researchers at the University of Montana.
Economists at the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR) found that the fee increase would cause an annual loss of $3.4 million in spending in the communities within 60 miles around Yellowstone National Park. And that predicted loss would be just from the price increase to seven-day passes.
That’s because economist and ITRR associate director Jeremy Sage and his colleagues found that for every 10 percent increase in travel costs for travelers, including entrance fees, the number of monthly visits to the park declines by 2.7 percent when all other factors are constant, based on historical data and visitor surveys.
The dollar amount of the potential loss to communities around Glacier National Park has not yet been calculated.
According to a report from the National Park Service, visitors spent nearly $525 million in the communities surrounding Yellowstone in 2016, and $251 million in the areas around Glacier National Park that year. That means, based on the ITRR’s study, the towns around Montana’s two national parks could lose millions if the price increase takes effect.
Sage said that previous research from the ITRR has found that most visitors that come to Montana are here for Glacier and Yellowstone, and that many of them travel through Missoula to get from one to the other. Sage said it’s “plausible” and “logical” to assume there might be a drop in spending in Missoula as well.
“The effects shown in our assessment of Yellowstone likely carry over to the other parks and gateway communities as well,” Sage said. “We only assess the seven-day vehicle pass, but changes are proposed to the motorcycle pass, the per-person pass and the park-specific pass. All should be expected to reduce visits and thus have a negative impact on local communities.”
The study’s findings are in line with basic economic theory, but the ITRR was able to put solid research behind the assumption.
“As with most goods or services in our economy, a price increase leads to a decrease in demand,” said Jeremy Sage, the ITRR study’s lead author. “In the case of a national park, this means a reduction in the number of visits.”
Earlier this fall, The U.S. Department of the Interior announced a plan to increase fees in 17 of the most-visited national parks in response to a nearly $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog. Proponents say it will allow National Parks to repair critically underfunded infrastructure upgrades.
“The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in a statement. “Targeted fee increases at some of our most-visited parks will help ensure that they are protected and preserved in perpetuity and that visitors enjoy a world-class experience that mirrors the amazing destinations they are visiting.
"We need to have the vision to look at the future of our parks and take action in order to ensure that our grandkids' grandkids will have the same, if not better, experience than we have today. Shoring up our parks' aging infrastructure will do that," Zinke said.
For many of the parks, the fee increase means a seven-day vehicle pass will jump from $30 to $70 during the park’s five-month peak season. The National Park Service expects to generate an estimated 34.3 percent increase, or $69 million, over its 2016 revenues.
The fee increase is only a proposal right now, and the Interior Department is taking public comment until Dec. 22 at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?documentID=83652.
Racene Friede, the executive director of Glacier Country Tourism in Missoula, said her organization has made a strategic decision not to come out one way or the other on the proposal. That’s because there would still be things like an $80 America the Beautiful Pass that covers entrance fees to all national parks and wildlife refuges for a year.
“We’re not convinced there’s a clear line that you have to oppose it or approve it,” she said. “We’re certainly paying attention, and we’ll shape our messaging and advice to travelers, whether it’s a group or international, around that decision. It’s really a diverse issue.”
The new fees would have the biggest impact on travelers who drive from relatively short distances, according to Sage.
“The effect of the price change is disproportionately felt by local visitors from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming,” he said. “Visitors from these local states currently have an average travel cost of about $106, including fuel and the entrance fee. They would see an increase of nearly 38 percent with the new fees. This obviously has a potential to create a significant hardship for many families in the local area.”
The price changes mostly will affect the local communities, he added, with U.S. citizens outside the area and Canadians seeing an average change of 14 percent and international visitors facing an average increase of only one percent.
The full report, “Thinking Outside the Park — National Park Fee Increase Effects on Gateway Communities,” is available on the ITRR website at https://scholarworks.umt.edu/itrr_pubs/362.