Peak season hike? SNP one of 17 parks that could see drastic entrance fee increases

Page News and Courier

LURAY — A proposed hike in entrance fees could more than double costs to visit Shenandoah National Park during peak season.

The proposed increase at 17 national parks would affect each park's busiest contiguous five-month period. The National Park Service, which is within the Department of the Interior, announced the proposal last Tuesday as a $70 million revenue generator to offset an $11 billion maintenance backlog.

“The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in an Oct. 24 news release issued by the park service. “Targeted fee increases at some of our most visited parks will help ensure that they are protected and preserved in perpetuity and that visitors enjoy a world-class experience that mirrors the amazing destinations they are visiting.”

Increases are proposed at parks such as the Grand Canyon, Acadia, Yosemite and Shenandoah National Park.

Beginning June 1, vehicle entrance fees would climb from $25 to $70 at SNP. The cost of riding a motorcycle into the park would rise from $20 to $50, while individual passes would increase from $10 to $30. Annual park passes would jump from $50 to $75, rivaling gate costs of popular amusement parks (Kings Dominion, for example, is selling 2018 season passes on its website for $99; Busch Gardens is currently advertising annual passes for $144).

Advocates of the proposed park increases say that revenue generated by the hike ― even at a loss in visitation numbers ― would help repair deteriorating roads, restrooms and buildings. Those opposed say an increase would price out lower-income families and individuals, causing a potential blow to gateway communities that depend on the economic spillover generated by park visitors.

“A huge jump in cost like this would make it harder for Virginia families to visit Shenandoah National Park, which so many of us treat like an extension of our backyards, and hurt our tourism economy,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in an Oct. 25 statement. “The Trump Administration and congressional Republicans would rather shift these costs onto Americans, instead of covering maintenance costs in the budget.”

The National Park Service's proposed fee increase announcement did not mention or attribute its proposal to the president's 2018 budget proposal to cut $400 million from the parks.

“The majority of national parks will remain free to enter; only 118 of 417 park sites charge an entrance fee, and the current proposal only raises fees at 17 fee-charging parks,” according to the park service's Oct. 24 news release.

Specifically for communities surrounding Shenandoah National Park, like Page County, increased fees could translate to decreased tourism spending, said Director of Marketing and Sales for the Luray Caverns Corp. John Shaffer.

“There's no consideration given to those who rely heavily on day-trip visitation,” said Shaffer, who serves as chairman of the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce's Tourism Council.

Many destinations, such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, continued Shaffer, spur visitors that plan trips months in advance and spend weeks at a time in the parks.

“In that regard, it's a small fee increase for them,” he said. “For parks that rely on day-trip visitation, it's a significant enough increase to deter a trip to the park.”

Last year, 331 million visitors to the nation's 417 National Park Service sites contributed $34.9 billion to the U.S. economy, according to a report released last spring by the agency. The record numbers reflect a $2.9 billion increase from 2015.

The peer-reviewed National Park Visitor Spending Effects report noted record visitation and record spending in gateway communities, such as Luray and Page County, citing that visitor spending supported 318,000 jobs ― many of them in those communities.

Last year, Shenandoah National Park welcomed 1.4 million visitors who spent more than $96.2 million and helped spur the creation of 1,278 jobs. By comparison, Luray Caverns welcomed more than half a million visitors, according to Shaffer.

“I think there's no question that we would see a decrease in our visitation [if park fees increased],” Shaffer said. “It would have an impact.”

Relying on anchor attractions like the park, Caverns and the Shenandoah River, Page County has continued to capture a bigger piece of Virginia's growing tourism industry. According to a report issued in September by the Virginia Tourism Corp., Page County ranks as the state's 58th-largest tourism dollar generator among 133 counties and cities. The ranking is based on revenue collected from lodging, restaurants and tourist attractions.

In 2016, visitors to Page County spent about $67 million ― up from about $63 million in 2015.

If approved, a fee hike at the park could have a devastating affect on those numbers, said Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce Bill Fisher.

“We would expect to see a downturn in visitors to the county, which would result in a loss of jobs, businesses closing and a decrease in [Transient Occupancy Tax] and meals tax revenue to the county,” Fisher said. “There's no silver lining to this that I see for the community, and if all [the National Park Service] is looking at is increased revenue from gate fees, then they're being short-sighted.”

Since the last entrance fee hike in 2015, SNP fees have increased from $10 to $20 for motorcycles, $10 to $25 for vehicle passes and $30 to $50 for annual passes.

If the park service's additional hike is approved, small businesses owners, shops and eateries, like those occupying storefronts on Page County's Main Streets, perhaps stand to suffer the most, said President of the Board of Directors for the Hawksbill Trading Co. Jay North.

“Many businesses rely on the influx of tourist dollars to keep restaurants, shops and lodging open and available to our communities year-round ― and some struggle to do that,” North said. “These businesses are usually small businesses, owned and run by our friends, families and neighbors.

“What happens to all our small business owners and the people they employ when our service industry collapses due to lack of tourism?” he continued. “By further raising the entrance fees to the parks, our government threatens our economic viability and self-sustainability by driving down tourism.”

A 30-day comment period will run until Thanksgiving on Nov. 23. Two years ago, the park service's plan to implement fee increases of $15 per vehicle allowed for a seven-month comment period and meetings near the affected parks, including Shenandoah National Park. Information and a forum for public comments can be found at the NPS Planning, Environment and Public Comment website at Written comments can be mailed to 1849 C St., NW, Mail Stop: 2346 Washington, D.C., 20240.

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