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Park Service's Fee Waivers Yield Mixed Results

By Ed O'Keefe

President Obama will visit the Grand Canyon (above) this weekend. (Getty)

Updated 5:08 p.m. ET

The Obama administration’s decision to waive entrance fees at National Parks on three weekends this summer appears to be leading to modest increases in attendance but is having little impact on concession sales and lodging, according to limited data collected by the National Park Service.

President Obama is scheduled to visit Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon this weekend to promote the fee-waiver program, which launched this summer as part of his administration's economic stimulus efforts. The Park Service waived entrance fees in late June, mid-July and this weekend in an effort to provide affordable vacation options to Americans during the recession.

In all, 147 of the 391 national parks charge admission fees. Of the 147, the Park Service asked 50 to provide visitor and revenue information for the weekends of, before and after the fee waiver, according to Park Service spokesman Jeffrey G. Olson. Revenue information includes entrance fees, park sales and transportation fees. Concessions and lodging at national parks are operated by private companies.

Of the 39 parks that submitted visitor information, 22 reported higher visitor rates during the free June weekend than the weekends before or after, five reported lower counts, while 12 reported the free weekend was higher than only one of the weekends before or after.

The Park Service also informally surveyed concession and lodging operators at the 50 parks. About two-thirds reported no attributable change in sales on fee waiver weekends, according to Olson.

The fee-free weekends will cost the Park Service $750,000 to $1 million in lost revenue each day. The agency anticipates losing up to $6 million in revenue by the end of this weekend. Total revenue is down 3 percent so far this year when compared with 2008.

Despite mixed results from the fee waiver weekends, the National Park Service this year anticipates a 4 to 5 percent increase over the roughly 275 million people who visited National Parks in 2008, according to Olson. That's due in part to the approximately 2.6 million people who crowded the National Mall for Obama's inauguration, he said. Some of the jump will also be attributable to the fee waiver weekends, he said.

By Ed O'Keefe  | August 13, 2009; 1:38 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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