Across America, communities look to tourism to boost their economies, and when it comes to attracting more visitors, many cities are looking to the National Park Service (NPS). Some in Chicago are aiming to revitalize a poor, historic neighborhood with the help of an NPS designation. In Northern California, Rosie the Riveter National Park has recast Richmond’s waterfront. There’s a reason cities envision economic development when they picture the iconic NPS arrowhead logo. In a recent annual report about the impact of parks visitation, the NPS said trips to national parks and historic sites lead to billions of dollars of local spending all across the country. In 2013, the parks system received 273 million recreational visits, which translated to $14.6 billion dollars funneled to local communities and contributed $25.5 billion to the national economy.
It’s not just family vacations to popular sites like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon that have an effect. Every dollar spent on a daytime jaunt to a national seashore like Cape Cod in Massachusetts or a sightseeing tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta circulates to the surrounding economy. The report details how visitors to national parks allocate their money toward lodging, admission and fees, gas and oil, restaurants and bars, souvenirs, groceries, and local transportation in park gateway regions (defined by NPS as 60 miles around a park). This report says this spending cycle supported 238,000 jobs and $9.2 billion in labor income in 2013.
As dazzling as those numbers are, the visitation numbers do represent a decline of 3.2 percent when compared to 2012. Factors that contributed to the loss for the year include repairs and closures following Hurricane Sandy and other events of extreme weather. More notably, the 16-day shutdown in October 2013 had a deleterious effect on visitation to national parks. The closure of all 401 park units that month led to a decline of more than 6.4 million visitors compared to the previous October and a net loss of $414 million in visitor spending.
Cuts to the NPS operating budget, such as the 5 percent slash mandated by last year’s sequester, has closed roads, limited staffing and ranger programs, and deferred routine maintenance operations. In March, President Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 included a $664 million increase to the National Park Service’s budget in anticipation of the agency’s historic centennial in 2016. NPS has been the steward of America’s parks and historic sites for 100 years. As it looks ahead to the next century, we should think about the 14.6 billion reasons why we might want to continue supporting a proven driver of local economies.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.