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New NPS Charges Unfair to Tour Operators

At NTA’s Travel Exchange conference last December in St. Louis, I was among those participants who were shocked to hear what National Park Service (NPS) bureaucrats had in mind to raise added revenue from the group tour industry.

The proposal that NPS discussed was somewhat complex, but it essentially assessed a fee of $300 each year for a commercial tour company to take a motorcoach into a National Park site and a $5-per-person management fee, plus a lot of what appears to be unnecessary paperwork.

Under this proposal, tour operators will be treated differently than individual park visitors. Even visiting a free park unit — more than two-thirds of the 417 total — will cost operators $300 for a “Commercial Use Authorization” (CUA) in addition to $5 per head, a total of $550 for a full coach of 50 guests at an ostensibly free site; operators will also have to process a lot of paperwork before a park visit and again at the end of the year.

Many of us at that meeting argued vociferously that the proposed new regulations as constituted would be nothing short of disaster. Yet, if I am reading correctly the new NPS requirements announced on April 12 for implementation October 1, 2019, the NPS now seems to be implementing what it initially proposed with few changes; it seems the input it requested from our industry was ignored.

  It also appears that these D.C. administrators have not thought through all the details and that they are about to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot. Why those who provide tour services to older travelers and students who can’t drive their own cars into a free park unit should have to pay $11, based on a 50-passenger group, to $15, based on a group of 30, per person, including the cost of a management fee to report the visit to a federal official is beyond comprehension. And I’ve never seen a policy better designed to encourage cheating.

I’ll stick by my original assessment that if this program is implemented as written, many smaller operators will be driven out of running tours to the parks and will be forced to purchase their park-oriented programs from large companies like Tauck, Globus, Trafalgar, Mayflower, etc., that offer dozens of departures and have the automated data-processing equipment and software to allow them to deal efficiently with the new paperwork.

Furthermore, even to “fee” park sites —  since the $300 CUA assessment is apparently the same whether an operator brings one or 100 departures — it could work out to only $3 per tour for large companies while smaller organizations will have to pay much more proportionately. For example, one of my consulting clients annually offers a single departure of a Southwest National Parks itinerary that visits 11 NPS sites along the way. Before it sells one guest on the tour in the future, it will be required to fork over $3,300 for nonrefundable CUA permits, then pay currently unspecified per-passenger park entrance fees upon arrival. Then there is the $5-per-guest management fee accompanying the mandatory CUA utilization report at the end of each operating season, although “for operations in parks that collect an entrance fee, NPS will deduct a $5 per client CUA management fee from entrance fees paid by road-based commercial tour CUA holders.” Can anyone make sense of that?

Incidentally, individual travelers who show up in their cars and contribute to park traffic nightmares will be subject to only a $5 increase for a seven-day vehicle pass at most fee sites. Remember when more enlightened NPS officials realized that one motorcoach replaces 20, 25 or more automobiles? Farewell, common sense.