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Fee for All: How gateway businesses are looking at National Park fee changes.

In early April, the National Park Service backed away from a plan to increase entrance fees in key parks from $30 to $70 for each private, non-commercial vehicle. Instead, fees will increase by $5 for entrance fees across the park system.

The decision was a relief to many communities near those parks--communities that feared higher fees would result in fewer visitors. The fee increase would have directly impacted Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Zion national parks, in addition to 13 national parks located in other states.

However, the NPS also floated a proposal to increase fees for commercial tour operators beginning in January 2019--and as of publication, the NPS has not indicated whether those increases will go into effect. A public comment period on those proposed increases ended on December 22, 2017.

The annual "America the Beautiful-The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass" will remain at $80 per year and provide entrance to all national parks.

While local communities and businesses are grateful the proposed increases have been scaled back, the national parks still face challenges that include significant deferred maintenance projects and seasonal overcrowding.

During peak season, gateway communities near Utah's national parks typically find themselves packed with visitors, and popular destinations like Arches National Park can see long lines of cars and buses that idle outside the gates for hours.

Arches National Park is considering a reservation system to cut down on traffic congestion. The park service is reviewing public comments on the proposal, and Zion National Park is considering a similar proposal.

Bustling gateway businesses, such as hotels, restaurants and outdoor shops, rely on these national park visitors for business. How will these fee structures and other proposals affect their businesses?

Continuing concerns

Lance Syrett, resort manager at Ruby's Inn by Bryce Canyon, is concerned about the timing of the potential fee increase for commercial tour operators, which would begin in early 2019.

He allocates rooms for a number of commercial tour operators, many of which typically sell tour packages up to two years ahead of time. However, with uncertainty about pricing, many of these operators are waiting on 2019 pricing and are not yet selling their products.

"They can't put the parks on sale right now, they can't put our product that normally would be selling right now because they don't know what to charge for it," Syrett says. Such uncertainties leave business owners in a holding pattern waiting to see if and when changes will be implemented.

Businesses nearby Arches and Zion national parks remain concerned about overcrowding. Scott Williams, owner of Springdale-based Zion Cycles, was not opposed to the fee increases, he says, because a reduced number of visitors could mean more of the people who did come through would be more likely to stop in town and perhaps spend some money.

"There's a high percentage of people that come in, drive right through Zion and Springdale, visit the park, and then leave," Williams says. "I think that amount of traffic creates an environment where people get anxious and they feel crowded or overwhelmed so they don't necessarily want to hang out in that environment if it's difficult for them to find parking, if it's difficult for them to get into a restaurant or be able to be helped."

Economical vacations

With or without the fee increase, a national park vacation is still more affordable than many alternatives. Steve Kennedy is one of three partners at GearHeads Outdoor Store--which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year--in Moab, a gateway community for Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

"[A national park vacation is] a lot cheaper than maybe taking a trip to Disney World or trying to take a cruise or go to Europe or other exotic vacations that can cost a lot more money," Kennedy says.

And if Utah visitors want to enjoy the great outdoors, they don't have to turn to national parks to do so. Surrounding areas, such as Bureau of Land Management areas or state parks, have free or less expensive entry fees.

"There's so much to do in Moab that we don't rely entirely just on the parks," Kennedy says. "I mean that's a big part of the draw for sure, Arches and Canyonlands being literally minutes from Moab, but there's lots of other things as well. There's plenty of canyons and roads and the river and Jeep trails, and there's a lot of running trails and bike trails. Really there's just so much to do here that the parks are a very important piece of it but it is only one piece of the amount of recreation that's available for people.... You could visit Moab, literally stay here for months and never run out of places to see and things to do without ever going in the park."

Caption: Zion National Park

Caption: Canyonlands National Park
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Title Annotation:Business Trends
Comment:Fee for All: How gateway businesses are looking at National Park fee changes.(Business Trends)
Author:Pope, Kristen
Publication:Utah Business
Geographic Code:1U8UT
Date:May 1, 2018
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