- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 13, 2009

When the Obamas visit Yellowstone National Park on Saturday for a first family getaway, they’ll be in good company.

As part of a national trend, Yellowstone broke its own visitation record in July when 900,000 tourists entered the Wyoming park. That was an increase of 11.4 percent from the previous July, typically the park’s peak month, and about 53,000 more visitors than the monthly record set in July 1995.

While Yellowstone’s jump in popularity may be the most dramatic, the entire National Park Service system is having a better-than-average year at its 391 sites, which include national parks, battlefields, seashores and historic sites such as the White House.

“There’s definitely been an increase this year and we’re anxious to see how that plays out,” National Park Service spokesman David Barna said.

Another flagship destination in the West, Yosemite National Park in California, reported its biggest June and July numbers in more than a decade.

See the results of our poll of readers on their favorite national park by clicking here.

In June, the park had 501,588 visitors, its highest June number since 1996. Another 608,567 tourists arrived in July, the most visitors for that month since 1998, said Yosemite spokesman Erik Skindrud.

Park officials credit several factors for the spike in attendance, including lower fuel prices, the affordability of a national-park vacation, the presidential inauguration and even the recession.

“A visit to Yellowstone or any national park is a good value,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said. “You can do a hotel, a cabin or go camping. There’s a lot more flexibility that families have when they plan a visit to a place like Yellowstone than with some other tourist destinations.”

About 127.6 million people visited all National Park Service sites from January through June, an increase of 3.49 percent over the same period in 2008, and the first major increase in several years.

A big reason for the national increase was the presidential inauguration. The National Park Service recorded 2.66 million more visits in January 2009 than it did in January 2008. Of those, 2.22 million were in the District of Columbia, said Tom Wade of the National Park Service’s statistics office in Denver.

Even without the inauguration, however, the parks are enjoying a boom year, hosting 2 million more people in the first half of 2009 than in the first half of 2008. Numbers for the first half of the year have remained relatively stable at about 123 million since at least 2004.

Mr. Barna said the scattered estimates for July and August mean that even “if you take the inauguration out of play, I would say there’s been an increase of 2 to 5 percent over the previous year.”

“We’re optimistic that at the end of the year we’ll see a nice increase,” he said.

He predicted that international tourism may be driving much of the uptick. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, visits from foreign tourists plunged. This may be the year those travelers decided it was safe to come back, he said.

“About 15 percent of our visitation on average is from international visitors. I think that must be up this year,” Mr. Barna said.

Jim Gramman, the agency’s visiting chief social scientist and a professor at Texas A&M University, said the record-setting attendance at Yellowstone was in some ways counterintuitive, given the world economic situation.

One would think that with “the economic recession, the recent spike in gasoline prices, that travel to distant destinations like Yellowstone would go down,” Mr. Gramman said.

Although fuel prices have creeped up in the past few months, gas is much cheaper than the $4-per-gallon spike of last summer.

Jim McCaleb, general manager of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which handles hotels, restaurants and concessions for Yellowstone and other national parks, said getting the maximum bang for the vacation buck was the priority for many Yellowstone visitors.

“It seems like the trend on the part of the vacationing public is that they won’t cut out their vacation entirely, but they want to cut costs,” Mr. McCaleb said. “We saw some softening in retail sales and food and beverage sales. And camping is huge this year.”

Other tourists are seeking out parks located near large urban areas for day trips and inexpensive weekend getaways.

“Some of this could be related to the economy. People want to be closer to home,” Mr. Skindrud of Yosemite said. “A lot of our visitors are day-trippers; they’re not staying overnight.”

The Obamas are taking a brief vacation starting Friday, when they fly to Bozeman, Mont. From there, the family plans to spend Saturday at Yellowstone, followed by stops in Grand Junction, Colo., and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The president will be back to work at the White House on Monday.

The Obama administration has tried to encourage visits to national parks this summer with its “fee-free weekends,” during which families can visit sites free of charge. The third and final no-fee weekend is Aug. 15-16.

Slightly more than one-third — 147 — of the park system’s sites charge an entrance fee. It costs $25 to spend a week at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which includes car access. The weekend discount probably isn’t enough to explain the park’s jump in popularity, Mr. Gramman said.

“Given that most people don’t live near Yellowstone and have to travel there, that’s a small fraction of the cost,” he said.

Then again, like movies and candy, Yellowstone may be one of those attractions that’s simply recession-proof. National parks also became more popular in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

“I don’t know that Yellowstone is recession-proof, but we are a bit recession-resistant,” Mr. Nash said.

The national parks can be expected to receive another boost with the release of a Ken Burns film, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” The six-part documentary is scheduled to air on public television starting Sept. 27.

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