A new report from the US National Park Service shows outdoor travelers are spending more than ever in gateway communities surrounding national parks.
(Bloomberg) — The appeal of the great outdoors is enduring. In February, the National Park Service reported that visitation to the country’s forests, monuments, historical sites and other parks reached 312 million visitors in 2022, about 5% shy of the pre-pandemic 327 million. Now, a new report shows those visitors spent a record $24 billion in gateway communities located within 60 miles of these protected areas as part of their trip.
The report from NPS economists, published on Aug. 21, says the most recent spending figure represents a 16% increase over 2021 when travelers injected $21 billion in the areas closest to national park entrances. It also surpasses the $21 million they spent in 2019.
“The impact of tourism to national parks is undeniable: bringing jobs and revenue to communities in every state in the country and making national parks an essential driver to the national economy,” said Chuck Sams, director at the National Park Service, in a release.
The $24 billion figure represents direct visitor spending, on expenses such as accommodations and food that are an integral part of any trip. But the impact of that spending rippled much farther. It funded 378,400 jobs in 2022, and resulted in $50 billion in total economic output—a number that includes “indirect” tourism spending such as the business-to-business purchases of supplies and services as well as the ways employees used that income to purchase goods and services in the local economy.
The bulk of that spending went towards lodging facilities: More than a third of national park visitors (38%) stayed overnight outside the parks, bringing an influx of $9 billion to hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts and other types of lodging in gateway communities.
Food was the second-highest expense related to national parks trips, with $4.6 billion spent at restaurants and bars. Recreation and retail came close behind, with a combined $4 billion in spending, while transportation received $1.6 billion. Beyond these top five spending categories are campgrounds, which logged $500 million in consumer spend.
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The study also revealed long-term shifts in the destinations that Americans are prioritizing. Whereas Alaska used to be among the most popular states for national park tourism, the trend toward mainland—meaning, more drivable—destinations has outlasted the pandemic. Now California, North Carolina, Utah, Tennessee and Virginia are the five largest benefactors of national park tourism, in that order.
Moreover, Tennessee and North Carolina have seen the largest growth in economic contributions since 2019. The former—which contains Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area—has seen its national park spending almost double, jumping from 716 million to $1.3 billion in the last four years. North Carolina, which also straddles the Great Smoky Mountains and includes the Blue Ridge Parkway, has gone from $1.4 billion to 2.4 billion in national park spending during the same period.
At the individual park level, a handful of places experienced disproportionate growth. Among them, Zion National Park in Utah generated $961 million in visitor spending in its surrounding communities in 2022—that’s a more than twofold increase from $344 million in 2019. And travelers heading to Acadia National Park in Maine spent $479 million in 2022 compared to $380 million in 2019.
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But there is a downside. Both of these parks, among others, have faced overcrowding issues since the pandemic spurred an interest in wide-open spaces and nature-oriented escapes, so much so that Congress got involved.
As a result, the National Park Service has been implementing various strategies to protect these fragile places from the effects of heavy foot traffic. Timed reservation systems, trail permits and shuttle transportation have all been helping to reduce congestion—and perhaps attract more responsible, higher-spending travelers, too. More intrepid solace-seekers are even taking to the skies for airplane camping in remote wilderness.
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