Travel trends: 2010 to be the best year ever for America’s parks? [update]

More than 285.6 million people visited America’s national parks in 2009, making it the fifth busiest year in the 94-year history of the national park system. About 10 million fewer people visited the parks in 2008. The all-time visitation record was in 1987 with 287.2 million visitors.

Weak Economy Was Good for Park Visitors
During a phone interview with David Barna, the chief of public affairs for the park service, he talked about several factors that contributed to the increase in visitation, including:
1.) publicity generated last year by President Obama’s family visit to Yellowstone and Grand Canyon;
2.) buzz created by the Ken Burns PBS documentary that aired in September;
3.) three highly publicized weekends in 2009 when entrance fees to the parks were waived.However, the weak U.S. economy was probably the most significant factor in the increase in visitors in 2009. The Euro remained strong against the dollar, which is why more than 40 million travelers came from outside the U.S. That’s a 50 percent increase in international visitors since 2001.

Low gasoline prices in the U.S., and the overall value of a national park vacation in any economy, also factored into the increase in visitors, according to park service officials.

Assuming all things remain constant, 2010 should be a very good year for the parks — maybe the best ever. By looking at the trendline in the chart above, it’s easy to see that 2010 could see as many as 290 million visitors — a new record for the parks.

The other top five attendance years in descending order were:
* 1999 with 287.1MM visitors;
* 1998 with 286.8MM visitors;
* 2000 with 285.9MM visitors;
* 2009 with 285.6MM visitors.

The Great Smokies and the Grand Canyon Pull Their Weight
The most visited national park was the Great Smoky Mountain National Park with 9.4 million visitors. Located on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the Smokies celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2009 and is one of the parks that always offers free admission. The Grand Canyon pulled in nearly 4.5MM visitors in 2009.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, which is not a designated park (and is therefore not included in the chart above) but is a unit of the national park system, received nearly 16 million visitors in 2009. It’s celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2010.

2010 also marks the 30th anniversary of President Jimmy Carter’s signature on the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, which added 47 million acres and doubled the size of the national park system. Depending on how successful promotions around these events are, 2010 could be a banner year for the parks system as a whole.

UPDATE: The National Park Service has announced that during National Park Week (April 17-24), the entrance fee to all of its 392 parks will be waived.

Data source: Travel Industry Association and AAA