Nearby deals to the rescue as national park visitation slides

U.S. national parks enjoy a reputation as affordable destinations but haven't been immune from the downturn in travel, which has prompted surrounding businesses to issue deep discounts.

In 2008, the number of visitors to the 391 national parks in the USA — including monuments, seashores, battlefields and historic destinations overseen by the National Park Service — fell for the first time in three years. It was down 0.4% to 275 million, says David Barna, a Park Service spokesman.

As more Americans cancel expensive European or Caribbean vacations amid the rough economy, travel experts expected better results for national parks. They envisioned families packing into their minivans and camping out at Yosemite, Yellowstone or Shenandoah.

Barna says several factors have hindered growth, including volatile gas prices that are discouraging families from road trips. The dollar's relative strength is keeping foreigners home. (About 40 million foreigners visit national parks each year.)

People also are taking shorter vacations, and outdoor destinations aren't popular among children who are more in tune with computers and video game sets, Barna says.

To stir interest, the National Park Service is spending $754 million of the federal stimulus package to spruce up deteriorating facilities and trails at places such as the Grand Canyon. "Parks haven't been in great shape in the last few years," Barna says.

Those seeking out national parks will find plenty of deals. The National Park Service is waiving entrance fees — ranging from $3 to $25 — this weekend and the third weekend of August.

Pines Resort Bass Lake, a hotel near Yosemite National Park in California, has been offering coupons for the first time — $25 off for two nights. Chris Riddington, owner of Classic Charter, a tour bus company in Visalia, Calif., says its trips to national parks fell about 9% this year, and he cut rates by 7%.

Dave Hartvigsen, sales and marketing consultant for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which operates hotels and concessions in several parks, says travelers are waiting longer to book. The company has extended its early-bird specials and discounts. "It's been a tough year," he says.

Travel companies are devising packages aimed at convenience. Quality Inn of Sequim near Olympic National Park in Washington has introduced packages that offer car drop-off/pickup for guests at various hiking trail entrances, which can often take up to two hours on busy days, hotel owner Bret Wirta says.

Vendors in Cody, Wyo., near Yellowstone, have been cooperating to entice customers to stay longer, says Janet Gideon of The Cody. The hotel is offering discounted packages that combine a stay with activities such as fly-fishing.

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