It’s always interesting to see how America’s National Park System is portrayed internationally. One way to get a handle on that is to read park-themed articles published on an occasional basis in The Economist. The authoritative English language weekly news and international affairs publication, certainly one of the most respected of the world’s widely circulated periodicals, has a circulation of about 1.3 million. Published by the Economist Group and edited in the UK, The Economist is distributed in over 200 countries around the world. Nearly half of its readership is outside North America.
So, what has The Economist been saying about America’s national parks? Here’s the gist.
(Oh, by the way; when we say that The Economist says this, or The Economist says that, we can’t know exactly who is doing the saying. The publication – which calls itself a “newspaper,” even though it is glossy paper-printed and looks exactly like a newsweekly magazine -- doesn’t believe in bylines.)
The article of interest here is dated July 12, 2008, and bears the “Out of the Wilderness” title. Its main observations, conclusions, and assertions are these:
• Attendance for America’s national parks peaked more than 20 years ago (in 1987).
• Declining attendance at national parks is a well-established, long-term trend, not just a transient event attributable to factors such as abrupt increases in fuel costs.
• The annual attendance declines for California’s Yosemite National Park (9 of the past 13 years) should be considered ominous, given that California is America’s most dependable bellwether state and Yosemite is California’s most attractive park.
• Having become more satisfied with the recreational options available in/near cities, Americans are now less interested in outdoor recreation opportunities in rural, back country, and wilderness locales.
• Americans believe that their national parks are much less entertaining, less user-friendly, and less kid-safe than they should be.
• Hispanics, the fastest growing component of the American population, show little interest in visiting or paying for national parks; since Hispanics will soon account for 20-25 percent of country’s population, this should be a matter of great concern.
• International tourists are taking up much of the slack created by diminished park-visiting interest on the part of Americans. By implication, the National Park Service needs to work much harder attracting and pleasing them.
• The National Park Service does not understand the implications of declining attendance and has failed to effectively address the issue.
• Environmentalists pose the greatest obstacle to restoring national park attendance to historically higher norms; by blocking needed convenience- and entertainment- related developments in the parks, environmentalists have taken away the main tool for increasing park attractiveness.
• As national park visitation continues to decline, Americans will become less willing to see their tax money spent to improve the national parks and expand the National Park System.
Well, there you have it. Not very pretty, is it?
You’ll be reading more about the referenced trends and issues in Traveler. Remember, I’m not vetting this article's observations and conclusions at this time, just drawing them to your attention as an indication of how the international press is reporting on America's national parks, “the best idea America ever had.” Perhaps you’d like to comment.
Incidentally, if you should happen to read the entire article in The Economist, you will find an absolutely bizarre statement that reads like this: "Were it not for British and German tourists enjoying the weak dollar, the parks would be desolate." Folks, that has got to be one of the most asinine statements about our national parks that I have seen in recent years, and I have seen some beauts. What were they thinking?!