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ABA Touts National Parks Win at 2020 Marketplace

OMAHA, Nebraskas — The American Bus Association (ABA) announced a significant government relations victory and several new partnerships and initiatives at its 2020 Marketplace, which took place January 10-14.

During the conference’s opening session, ABA president and CEO Peter Pantuso briefed attendees on the organization’s multiyear effort to forestall the implementation of rule changes that would have put onerous and expensive restrictions on group travel to national parks. Those changes were set to take effect this year, but the National Park Service (NPS) announced in December that it was delaying and re-evaluating the policy change.

ABA had joined with other tourism industry groups, including NTA, the United States Tour Operators Association and others, to convince park service officials to modify rules to be more friendly to tour and bus operators.

“We put a lot of effort into that for the last year, working with our industry partners,” Pantuso said. “We thought success had eluded us, so we moved it to the next level. We hired a lobbying firm to work on this issue, and the park service began hearing from Congress members who wanted to know what was going on. Our message was finally heard.”

Thanks to those efforts, NPS has decided to delay the implementation of the new rules until 2021. The fee structure for Conditional Use Permits has been significantly changed from the earlier proposal — now tour companies can expect to pay $350 for a nationwide permit for all park sites, plus an additional $50 for each park they visit. Group entrance fees will be based on the number of passengers, not a flat per-vehicle rate, and tour companies will be able to manage all their NPS permits through an online portal.

Pantuso said that while these concessions from NPS don’t include everything the tourism industry had hoped for, they still mark significant change from the original set of fees and rules that were supposed to go into effect this year.

“We’re certainly happy we’ve been able to get this far,” he said. “On a scale from one to 10, what we are getting is probably a five. And that’s the way government should work.”

In addition to the parks update, Pantuso announced a partnership with Busworld, an organization based in Belgium that hosts large-scale transportation industry events in Europe attended by tens of thousands of people. ABA’s Marketplace this year included an educational track called Busworld Academy, which featured high-level discussions about the future of motorcoach transportation.

Beginning in 2021, Busworld will host a Busworld North America expo in conjunction with ABA Marketplace every other year. Pantuso said the Busworld event will likely take place before the main Marketplace meetings and will be aimed at attendees from outside tourism.

“I think it will attract a totally new audience, although it’s going to be an integrated system with one registration,” he said. “But for our regular tour companies and DMOs, I don’t think they’ll see much change.”

Finally, Pantuso announced a partnership with a legal consortium called U.S. Law that will offer ABA members access to attorneys with expertise in transportation issues throughout the country. U.S. Law is setting up a special 24-hour hotline for ABA members to call for quick legal help should an emergency occur.

Next year’s ABA Marketplace is scheduled for January 29 – February 2 in Baltimore.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.