By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009
The Obama administration's decision to waive entrance fees at national parks on three weekends this summer appears to be leading to modest increases in attendance but is having little impact on concession sales and lodging, according to limited data collected by the National Park Service.
President Obama is scheduled this weekend to visit Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon -- two of the most popular parks in the 391-park system -- to promote the fee-waiver program. The administration launched the plan this summer as part of the economic stimulus efforts, hoping to provide affordable vacation options during the recession. Though the Park Service has waived fees on certain holidays, this summer is the first time it has offered a series of free weekends.
The Park Service asked 50 of the 147 sites that charge admission to provide visitor and revenue information for the weekends of, before and after the fee waiver, according to Park Service spokesman Jeffrey G. Olson. Revenue information includes entrance fees, park sales and transportation fees. Concessions and lodging at national parks are operated by private companies.
Of the 39 parks that submitted visitor information, 22 reported higher visitor rates during the free June weekend than the weekends before or after, five reported lower counts, and 12 reported that the rate on the free weekend was higher than during only one of the weekends before or after.
The Park Service also informally surveyed concession and lodging operators at the 50 parks. About two-thirds reported no attributable change in sales on the fee-waiver weekend in June, according to Olson.
Regular admission fees at the parks vary from $3 per person at smaller parks to $25 per vehicle at larger Western sites. Under the fee-waiver initiative, visitors did not have to pay park entrance fees June 20-21 or July 18-19. They also will not have to pay this weekend.
The fee-free weekends cost the Park Service $750,000 to $1 million in lost revenue each day. The agency anticipates losing up to $6 million in revenue by the end of this weekend. Total revenue for the Park Service is down 3 percent so far this year compared with 2008.
Despite the financial situation, the Park Service anticipates a big year in overall visits. Officials estimate a 4 to 5 percent increase this year over the roughly 275 million people who visited national parks in 2008, according to Olson. That's due in part to the approximately 2.6 million people who crowded the Mall for President Obama's inauguration, he said.