Nat'l Parks Closures Send Tour Ops Into Damage Control
by Maria Lenhart

Tour operators with scheduled tours that include visits to U.S. national parks leapt into contingency mode this week to come up with alternative itineraries.

Some tours in progress have been cut short, and in some cases customers are being offered full refunds, triggering commission losses for travel agents.

The extreme measures are necessitated by the closure of the entire U.S. National Park system as a result of the partial shutdown earlier this week of the U.S. government.

Tour operators were also considering cancelling their most parks-centric tours if Congress doesn’t act within the next few days to reopen the government and, with it, the shuttered national parks and monuments.

Globus: 28 departures affected
The Globus family of brands, which currently has 28 national parks itineraries either in progress or about to depart, has been busy creating alternative options, said Steve Born, vice president of marketing.

“In cases where it’s impossible to enter the park, we’re offering a visit to an attraction that’s nearby,” he said. “A major exception is the Grand Canyon, where you can still enter the park and drive through on the public highway.”

Globus has also had to make alternative lodging arrangements in cases where tours featured hotels within a national park, Born said. “Fortunately, the lodging we offer is mostly outside the parks, so we haven’t had to make too many changes.”

Globus is offering customers the option of cancelling on upcoming national parks tours and receiving a full refund. Customers have also been offered the option of leaving a tour that is already in progress. So far, about half have chosen to continue with tours in progress, according to Born.

Commissions affected
While travel agents will retain commissions for the part of the tours taken by customers who depart mid-tour, agents will not be paid commissions for the unused tour portion or when customers cancel altogether, Born said.

“We’re working with agents to get customers rebooked on the same tour for a future date,” he said.

While Globus had not canceled any tours at presstime, it may have to cancel those that are almost solely focused on national parks, according to Born. If that happens, agents and customers will be given 48 hours’ notice.

“We have several tours that are exclusively or 90% park experiences – the next departure for one of these is Oct. 11,” he said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that something is worked out before then.”

Collette: 2 tours cut short
At Collette Vacations, its National Parks of America and Canyon Countries itineraries, both of which visit parks in the western U.S., have been affected, with two tours cut short so far.

Customers were sent home with full refunds, including for air, and agents’ commissions were not affected, said Paula Twidale, executive vice president.

If the parks do not reopen, upcoming Collette tours, some of which are scheduled during the next few days, will be cancelled, she said. Agents and customers will be notified 48 hours before departure about a cancellation.

Re-booking incentives
“Agents will not retain their commissions on cancelled tours, but we will be offering incentives for re-booking,” she said.

“We’re prepared to resume the tours immediately. There’s a lot at stake. In some cases people have already flown in from the U.K. and Canada for these tours. And the destinations stand to lose out as well.”

On Collette’s other U.S. itineraries that include national parks and monuments, alternatives have been put in place. “It might mean visiting wine country instead of Yosemite or not going to Pearl Harbor, but the integrity of the tour has not been compromised,” Twidale said.

Trafalgar: 51 itineraries affected
Trafalgar Tours made changes to its 51 U.S, itineraries that include national parks and other federally run attractions, said president Paul Wiseman. Tours on at least three itineraries that focus heavily on national parks in the West are likely to be cancelled if the shutdown continues, he said.

“In most cases, we were able to reroute and redirect. People have the option of leaving the trip and getting a full refund, but most people who are already on the road are staying on and enjoying the revised arrangements that we’ve made.”

Impact on agents
While travel agents stand to lose out on commissions for cancelled tours, Wiseman said he is confident most customers will rebook.

“Most agents won’t be disadvantaged, but there will be extra work in rebooking,” he said. “A lot of us would like to send our invoices to the federal government for all the extra work this is causing.”

The park shutdown is pointing up the value of booking with a tour operator, rather than visiting a national park on your own, he added.

“The good thing about a guided vacation is that you have a tour director on the spot to help you through a disrupted trip,” he said. “For other visitors, there was no help at all – even the national park websites have been shut down.”

Mayflower finds alternatives

Mayflower Tours has not cancelled any tours or had any customers cancel. However it did modify two tours currently in progress that were to include the Grand Canyon and Smoky Mountains National Park, said Mary Novak-Beatty, vice president of marketing.

“In the Grand Canyon, we were able to offer the option of a free day at the hotel or of an excursion to view the canyon. What changed is that they cannot stay overnight in the park or explore it in-depth,” she said. “At Smoky Mountains, we’re doing a drive around the outside of the park instead and enjoying other areas nearby.”

Had any customers decided to cancel, the company would have allowed them to book another tour within a year’s period, with no cancellation fee.

Tauck ends Wyoming tour early
Tauck said it had seven tours in progress that were affected by the national parks shutdown, and it ended one tour early – its Yellowstone & The Tetons: American Safari, which departed Sept. 29.

For its other six affected departures, including America’s Canyonlands and Yosemite & Sequoia: John Muir’s California, the company has arranged alternative sightseeing and accommodations and will conclude the tours in their regular gateway cities as scheduled.

According to a notice on its website, Tauck currently has no plans to cancel any upcoming departures this fall. “Should we decide to cancel any tours, we will promptly notify all impacted guests,” it said.

Caravan offers refunds & ‘mystery tour’
Caravan Tours is offering a full refund on its Southwest Grand Canyon tour, which has 15 departures this month and includes visits to Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon.

The firm is also offering customers a substitute itinerary called the Southwest Mystery Tour, which visits other attractions in the region, including Monument Valley, Sedona, the Meteor Crater and the Navajo Nation. Customers booked on the affected tour can take the alternative for half price.

“We call it a mystery tour because no one knows when the parks will reopen, so we have to make up the itinerary route each day,” said Caravan spokeswoman Maureen Duffy.

So far, most customers booked on the Grand Canyon tour have opted for the Mystery Tour, she said.

Caravan estimates that the national parks shutdown is costing the company over $40,000 in refunds and discounts daily.

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