Coming at the end of the Centennial Year of the National Park Service, which was celebrated throughout 2016, the 114th Congress – led by the efforts of Senators Lisa Murkowski, (R) Alaska; Rob Portman, (R) Ohio, and Maria Cantwell, (D) Washington; and Representatives Rob Bishop, (R) Utah; and Raul Grijalva, (D) Arizona – passed H. R. 4680, the National Park Service Centennial Act.
This legislation sets up a number of key elements to address some of the long term backlog of $12 billion in infrastructure repairs and upgrades, fund other programs, and expand the role which private contributions can play in the national parks.
With the national parks being a key element in the marketing of the United States to international visitors, having these important national attractions in the best repair possible is critical to continuing growth and favorable reports back to the friends and relatives of current global travelers to the United States.
One of the elements of this new law is the continuation of the Centennial Challenge Fund, which provides matching funds to generate public private partnerships to accomplish projects which might otherwise not be funded. Prior projects under this program have included improved hydrology to benefit the giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park, California, for $5 million and restoration of the original year-round entrance to Yellowstone National Park, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, for $2 million. Additional projects of this nature will do much to sustain and improve the national parks.
Another new element is the establishment of the Second Century Endowment, a private sector fundraising effort which can be used to supplement Congressional appropriations to operate the national parks, while giving national parks advocates, such as the National Parks Foundation which will manage the endowment, more input on where and how to use these monies.
Additionally the act provides more opportunities for volunteer work, especially for young people, in the parks by enhancing the Public Lands Corps.
With all of this good news, one might ask if it is time to sit back, smile, and celebrate.
While celebrating is in order that this legislation was able to get through under the wire, the job is far from done. If anything, now is the time to reemphasize the role played by the national parks in attracting a big part of our international visitors which is the most favorable part of the international trade equation for the United States.
Presently, there are a number of travel industry trade organizations which have been playing a role of the national parks issue, including US Travel, Destination Marketing International Association, and NTA, among others.
None of these, however, have the singular focus of the opinions, travel patterns, and complete reliance on the success of the international inbound market, as does IITA.
With this in mind, it would be a major role as a highly impacted industry segment for IITA to play moving forward on finding more funding for the infrastructure backlog—perhaps in the trillion dollar proposal of President-elect Donald Trump, trying to establish a more consistent and less cumbersome fee structure scenario which seems to be moving to individual parks, and generating even more demand for less visible parks through the work of Brand USA in its international market efforts.
A clear national voice closest to the actual visitors would be very well received within the community of national parks advocates, on Capitol Hill, and within the offices of the new administration, particularly the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service itself, both of which will have brand new leaders.
There will be an opportunity to discuss both the national parks issues and the role to be played by IITA during the Operator Forum: Shaping the Future of Inbound Travel on Monday, February 6, at the IITA Summit in Biloxi, Mississippi. Inbound operators will have a chance to review the impact of the changing fee structures and decision-making process, as well as the condition of the parks and how to address it.
If the inbound tour operators want to play an increasingly relevant role on these issues, the Summit will be the place to maximize input and develop a strategy for 2017 and beyond.