WASHINGTON Representatives from the travel and tourism industry told members of Congress on Wednesday that they hope federal support for a new marketing strategy will help buoy the declining number of visitors to national parks.
"America's National Parks are not only an important component of our nation's social fabric. They are often the driving force in the economies of many rural communities," said Bob Warren, manager of the Redding (Calif.) Convention and Visitors Bureau and general manager of the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association.
Visits to national parks nationally and in the Pacific West have declined nearly 4 percent since 1996, reflecting a declining trend nationwide. Only Alaska and the District of Columbia saw increases.
Warren and others have worked with the National Park Service since May, after Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., chair of the House subcommittee on national parks, challenged them to develop ideas for pilot projects to increase park attendance.
The group reconvened to present its suggestions to the subcommittee. Most of the plans involve improving communication, addressing marketing problems using modern technology and attracting international visitors.
Karen Whitaker, director of marketing and communications for the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, operates a welcome center in Anderson, just south of Redding.
Her organization attracts visitors to the eight-county Shasta Cascade Region. She said ineffective distribution of information may contribute to the decline in visitors to national parks there.
"We've had a lot of trouble getting brochures from the National Park Service," she said.
"They want to hand them out as you enter the park, but people want the information before they go."
Many Web sites, Whitaker said, do not include sufficient information about the parks' attractions and amenities.
Warren pointed to a new "e-course" called "Introduction to the National Park Service: Its History and Mission" that will be available on the NPS Web site as a step toward increasing the information available to the public via the Internet.
There are a number of theories about the decline.
In April, Pearce said it likely reflected Sept. 11's effect on the nation's economy, but Whitaker said the terrorist attacks mostly affected international visitors.
"After 9/11, we were not down in visitation because people were driving. We're a big driving market," she said.
Whitaker said parks in the Shasta Region marketed strongly to residents of San Francisco Bay and Southern California who take weekend trips to the area. She said she did not think gas prices kept people away.
But international tourists make up a large part of the parks' visitors, and a report released last week by the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board said the United States had fallen from first to sixth among dream destinations for international travelers.
In addition to federal support for producing marketing materials, Warren suggested National Park Service officials receive a budget so they could attend international trade shows and publicize the parks.
"The Germans might not like our foreign policy, but they love our parks," he said.
Subcommittee member Luis Fortuno, Puerto Rico's Republican non-voting resident commissioner, strongly supported efforts to attract and accommodate international travelers.
He suggested the National Park Service's "Comprehensive Survey of the American Public," conducted every five years to assess people's attitudes about the parks, be expanded to include foreigners.
The survey, which will ask more questions of Americans, should begin in February, and results should be available in October.
Language barriers continue to be a problem. Chris Jarvi, NPS associate director of partnerships, interpretation and education, said the agency is experimenting with a multilingual cell phone information service and is considering the use of i-Pods as an information tool.