Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
The National Parks system is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and receiving tremendous national and international media attention that likely will result in blockbuster attendance.
Famed documentarian Ken Burns has produced a PBS series garnering millions of viewers. Brand USA, with MacGillivray Freeman Films, produced the IMAX 3D film "National Parks Adventure," narrated by Robert Redford, which is now playing in over 800 IMAX 3D theaters and museums in 60 countries (including the United States). And a variety of tour operators are boosting marketing to National Parks destinations.
With 39% of parks visits typically scheduled for the summer, according to an AARP survey, travel agents may struggle even more than usual to find lodging and other accommodations for clients as the peak season draws near and a forecasted 300+ million visitors tour the National Parks Service system.
“Ken Burns’ PBS series, and his partnership with Tauck over the last years, has certainly drawn attention to the parks, especially for the seasoned traveler who loves history and beautiful scenery,” said Ginny Caragol, a director of leisure business development at Valerie Wilson Travel.
“Many if not all the parks are already on pace for yet another record year,” said Dan Austin, president of tour operator Austin Adventures. Austin is part of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a global travel and hospitality company, and the largest operator of park-based hotels, restaurants, and stores in the United States.
Xanterra just launched a high-end brand, called Privel, to offer exclusive experiences for travelers. The Majestic American West: Park to Park Journey is an eight-person, 12-day private trip to eight Western U.S. parks, Sept. 18-29, 2016. It’s the first of “many more to come” in the Privel brand, Austin said, as the brand responds to increasing demand from the high-end travel market.
While the focus of many travelers this summer will be the iconic parks—Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone—“what we’ve seen with the Centennial is awareness that there are 59 national parks along with 350 other protected areas,” Caragol said.
She named Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, Canyonlands and Moab in Utah Arches, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.
On its website, AARP highlights 9-Under-the-Radar National Parks, like Isle Royale in Lake Superior, and Utah’s Canyonlands. “There is a national park in every state,” said Stephanie Miles, AARP vice president of programs. Miles recommended agents and travelers research their options.
The Homestead, adjacent to The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, is running a centennial special, “Find Your Park,” offering three nights' lodging, breakfast buffet each morning, a pass to the lakeshore park, and other items for $107 per person, per night based on a family of four.
For those who still wish to seek out the most popular parks, hotel rooms will be hard to come by if a traveler wants to be in a park, or adjacent. “Lodging, especially luxury accommodations, are very limited and sometimes non-existent in many parks,” Caragol said. “We had a request this week of a family of 12 who wanted to rent a home in Utah to visit the parks but these are hard to find.”
Miles recommends that agents urge their clients to “stay an hour from the park. Build their itinerary where they can get the experience, but come back to rest away from the crowds.” To visit the Grand Canyon, for example, have them stay away from the bustle and take The Grand Canyon Railway from Williams, AZ.
Valerie Wilson Travel has a handful of preferred suppliers with which it works, including Tauck, Collette Vacations, A&K, Globus, and Austin Adventures. “In addition we have a strong partnership with a company called National Parks Revealed with whom we customize all our independent trips,” Cargol said. “We not only book the lodging and car rental but we do day-to-day itineraries, with special guides that are experts in their field and access sometimes to lesser-known areas of the park.
The AARP survey estimates 82% of this year’s parks visitors will arrive by car, and stay two to three nights on average. National Park Service entrance fees are waived this year on Aug. 25-28, Sept. 24, and Nov. 11.