A Look Back at Last Year's Predictions for 2009 Park Travel. How Did the Forecasters Fare?

Park entrance station employee.

How did the number of visitors to parks for this year compare to predictions? NPS photo.

A number of NPS areas reported increases in visitation during 2009, but what was the outlook going into last year? Now that the actual results are coming in, let's see how the crystal balls fared.

You may recall that in late October of 2008, the U.S. economy was in the sub-basement and headed even lower, and the outlook for travel and tourism—including visits to national parks—wasn't exactly rosy.

The Travel Industry Association of America held its annual Marketing Outlook Forum from October 28 to October 30, 2008, in Portland, Oregon. According to a news release at the time of that event,

Over 600 travel marketing professionals attended sessions to comprehend the latest forecasts for travel demand and to brainstorm strategic ramifications for their communications programs. Overall travel demand for 2009 is projected to decline by -1.3%, pulled down by a larger projected decrease in business travel.

Dean Reeder, the NPS tourism chief, delivered a paper at the meeting on the outlook for U.S. National Parks. Despite the economic downturn and pessimism by the travel industry as a whole, he was optimistic on prospects for parks in a slow economy.

“Despite weak economic conditions and lagging consumer confidence, national parks visitation, projected to grow a mere 0.4%, will benefit from a preference for value, driven by deeply held values,” said Reeder.

According to forecasts made last fall by NPS staff members,

American travelers are trading down, but not out. By spring, 2009 consumers will seek relief from household cost-cutting, fulfilling strongly held needs and values for discovery and recovery. In tough economic times, many families will prefer more authentic experiences such as those offered by the national parks system of historic, cultural, and natural attractions.

So, now that the 2009 numbers are in the books, how the actual results compare with predictions?

As reported recently in the Traveler,

Nationwide, visits to NPS sites totaled 285.4 million, an increase of more than 10 million over 2008 levels and within sight of the record 1987 turnout, when 287.2 million headed into the parks.

“We were huge (in 2009)," said Butch Street, who tracks visitation data for the National Park Service. "It was the biggest increase we’ve had in 15 years.”

Opinions are often divided about whether "more is better" when it comes to park visitation, especially in the most popular sites that already suffer from over-crowding, and there are a lot of factors influencing those numbers that surprised some of the experts.

Some parks, including Great Smoky Mountains and Zion, were celebrating major anniversaries last year. The big turnout for the 2009 Inauguration in Washington, D.C., helped the stats for National Capital Parks. The PBS Ken Burns special came too late in the year to have an impact on the peak travel season, but may have spurred some extra fall travel.

Even so, it seems that quite a few Americans rediscovered their national parks last year.

The Superintendent at Grand Teton National Park, Mary Gibson Scott, helped put statistics in perspective in a comment last fall, and she offered a nice reminder that parks are ultimately about a lot more than numbers:

"We believe that families and individuals look to our national parks for an economical, value-packed, quality vacation. In addition, visitors know that national parks are special places with the capacity to enrich our lives and provide education, enjoyment, and adventure.”

What will 2010 hold in terms of visits to the parks? Check back in about a year.