Washington, DC – Stuck in a five-year slide in public visits, the National Park Service is looking for a tourism industry veteran to develop a “strategic direction” for the agency’s approach to attracting visitors, according to the job description released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Not only does the Park Service want to pick up industry techniques, but it also wants corporate financial contributions – or, as the position description puts it, to “promote private sector support of the NPS mission.”
The basic problem, as NPS sees it, is that fewer people are camping and boating in our national parks. The only consistent area of growth for the national park system is increasing commuter traffic – something termed “non-recreational use.”
“In its quest to ‘Disney-fy’ the park system, the Park Service risks sacrificing the very qualities that make national parks special and worth visiting,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing, for example, to the year-long “Partnership Agreement” that the Park Service has had with the Travel Industry Association of America. “By reaching out indiscriminately for every corporate opportunity, the Park Service may suffer unintended side effects of promiscuous partnering.”
The position description for the new Associate Director of Tourism, posted through February 7th, seeks someone with the “ability to teach the practices, operations and expectations of the tourism industry to NPS management.” The position would also “recommend strategies and solutions to [tourism-related] problems…and establish standards for the development and evaluation of activities through a large management organization.” Currently, the Park Service lacks any national plan or system to manage traffic at overcrowded parks or to steer people toward under-visited parks.
“The Park Service does not seem to contemplate the possibility that some of our parks may in fact be over-visited,” Ruch added.
The position description also calls for knowledge of “the industry’s emerging markets especially as regards to demographic patterns and affinities of under served and minority communities.” Notwithstanding the absence of a coherent visitation plan, late last year, Congress gave the Park Service greater ability to charge “recreation fees” to park visitors. It is not clear if new fees will only further depress visitation, especially from the very “under served” populations it now purports to want to serve.
“Writing a strategic plan for the future of the national park system should include far more than tapping into the marketing practices of the travel industry,” concluded Ruch.