National park visitors inject billions into the US economy

In 2014, more than the National Park Service hosted more than 292 million visitors. The system, which covers more than 84 million acres divided among 401 sites, includes some of the United States’ most iconic tourist destinations: the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Everglades. And when people visit those sites, they spend money. For the past 25 years, the National Park Service has been measuring and reporting the economic effects of park tourism. (The first data collection effort on visitor attendance itself was conducted in 1904, when six national parks reported 120,690 visitors.)

The latest report, covering the year 2014, has just been released by NPS and US Geological Survey researchers, along with a companion website that includes a variety of data visualizations.

The 292 million visits in 2014 represented an increase of nearly 20 million over 2013. In part, that’s because 2013 had a decline in visits owing to a 16-day government shutdown, closures in some parks for repairs following Superstorm Sandy, and the closure of the Washington Monument due to earthquake damage. However, 2014’s increase in visitation wasn’t entirely related to 2013’s slump: Joshua Tree, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Glacier national parks all saw record-breaking visitation.

Interestingly, the visitor spending report doesn’t actually cover money spent within the parks themselves. Instead, the report’s aim is to quantify tourist dollars spent in so-called “gateway regions,” which are defined as communities within 60 miles of a park. In that way, the report offers hard data on the ways in which the national park system contributes to the broader economy both in terms of dollar value and in terms of jobs.

As the chart below shows, while some folks choose to stay in an NPS-run lodge or campground, nearly a third of visitors choose to spend their lodging money at a hotel or motel outside of a park.

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In total, park visitors spent nearly $16 billion in gateway regions; while the largest proportion of that money came from folks staying in a hotel or motel outside of parks, a significant chunk came from the nearly 16% of visitors represented by non-locals taking day trips to the park. Beyond lodging, significant dollars are on restaurants and bars, as well as on supplies at gas stations, grocery and convenience stores. And don’t forget souvenirs! While 2013 did see a dip in spending, visitors spent a billion more dollars in 2014 than they did in 2012.

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The $16 billion in local expenditures directly supported almost 174,000 jobs and provided “secondary” support through an economic ripple effect (for example, an employee at a local business spending his or her paycheck in the local economy is a secondary effect) to another 103,000 jobs, for a total of some 277,000 jobs enabled by visits to US National Parks. That’s 35,000 more jobs than the park service supported, both directly and indirectly, in 2012. In other words, national parks are job creators!

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There’s lots more information waiting to be unpacked in the online data visualization tools.

For example, spending and job support can be displayed for each individual state and even for each individual park. Top states for visitor spending included California ($1.6 billion) and Alaska ($1.1 billion). Bottom states included Connecticut ($1.9 million) and New Hampshire ($1.8 million). American Samoa brought in a respectable $800,000.

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The most lucrative parks for local communities, unsurprisingly, included parks in California (like Yosemite and Golden Gate) and Alaska (like Denali), along with favorites like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

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This sort of data is useful not only to NPS leadership and to local communities who wish to encourage the growth of their local economies, but also to academic researchers, Congress, and others. For some highly visited parks, these statistics may even aid in the planning of federal highway systems. Within NPS, these metrics allow for the best allocation of resources – time, money, and staff – across each of the 401 sites administered by the service.

They are also a critical reminder that public lands are more than breathtaking vistas and reservoirs for biodiversity. They are important contributors to local and state economies, and to the national economy. Perhaps reminding lawmakers of their economic importance will help to sustain their critical role in wildlife conservation. – Jason G. Goldman | 01 May 2015

Source: Cullinane Thomas, C., C. Huber, and L. Koontz. 2015. 2014 National Park visitor spending effects: Economic contributions to local communities, states, and the Nation. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2015/947. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. (PDF)

Header image: A view from the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park via Flickr/NPS. Graphics via NPS.