In the upcoming 115th Congress, one of the biggest issues which is both unresolved and of interest to inbound tour operators is the massive infrastructure backlog at America’s national parks.
In a piece on the Centennial of the National Park Service which ran in the Washington Post on August 28, 2016, it was reported that “the system faces a $12 billion maintenance shortfall that has left infrastructure as big as bridges and small as restrooms in disrepair.” The first national park, “Yellowstone’s backlog alone is $603 million, facing crumbling roads, buildings, and wastewater systems. Congress has declined to provide funding needed for fixes that have lingered for more than a decade.”
One of the challenges in getting Congress to move is the kind of voices and information which reaches the key policymakers on the committees of jurisdiction over the national parks. Traditionally, the loudest and most organized voices are those closely affiliated with the content of the national parks and public lands. These are conservationists, cultural advocates, historians, backpackers, campers, recreational vehicle enthusiasts, environmentalists, and other groups representing users of the parks. There also are strong voices from the retired National Park Service employee community. Such voices have great support from lawmakers who have interests which align with these particular advocates.
On the other hand, there are policymakers in Congress who are very focused on the role which the national parks play in the national economy, specifically by creating and maintaining jobs, especially those in the private sector which surround the parks or support them by generating visitors.
It is abundantly clear that all of Congress embraces this aspect of the role of the national parks, as illustrated by the broad support for Brand USA, the national tourism marketing organization, which has produced and distributed “National Parks Adventure,” the IMAX movie now playing around the world. This movie, other appearances of national parks in films and publications, and the travel industry, including inbound tour operators, are motivating travelers from around the world to visit America.
With all of this background to set the discussion, it is then logical that the reaction of America’s international visitors can play a vital role in addressing that $12 billion backlog.
Getting the information from our visiting guests is the challenge. Are they experiencing less than ideal adventures in our national parks? Are the conditions of the roads, bridges, restrooms, lodging, visitor centers, and other facilities turn offs?
Do certain national park sites end up off lists of attractive places to include in itineraries, because of limited funding?
Policy makers would certainly want to hear the answers to these questions and others to see if the backlog could diminish the favorable balance of trade numbers that comes from tourism, which is so dependent on national parks. Congress does recognize that tourism impacts international trade. In fact, quantifying this dependence is another big element in the kinds of information policymakers would like. How many itineraries include national parks? How many are primarily composed of national park experiences? How many regions of the United States with itineraries sold in international markets have national parks as part of the journeys?
All of this information could be extremely valuable to the committees of jurisdiction and the appropriations committees in the House and Senate in the 115th Congress.
Travel industry leaders who could generate this information just might want to consider having it in hand before the gavels come down opening that new Congressional session.