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National Parks Seek Visitors

Nature: Tourism has dropped up to 50% since the terrorist attacks. Entrance fees will be temporarily waved.

November 09, 2001|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK — Becky and Dean Caldwell-Tautges parked their son's stroller and consulted a map. The Minneapolis family had the trail along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon practically to itself at a time when the park should be brimming with tourists.

When a long-planned business trip to Las Vegas was canceled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the couple didn't want to call off a side trip here.

"Flying was an issue," Becky Caldwell-Tautges said. "We talked about it. But we had never been here and we decided we would come anyway."

As a bonus, Dean Caldwell-Tautges said, the park--the nation's second-most visited--has been surprisingly uncrowded.

That, national park service officials say, is precisely the problem.

Visitation at national parks and monuments dropped markedly--as much as 50%--in the weeks after the attacks and remains lower than last year.

In response, the Department of the Interior will waive entrance fees over the Veterans' Day weekend to all the public lands it manages, including national parks.

Federal officials are calling the freebie a "Weekend of Unity, Hope and Healing," but park managers, hoteliers and retailers are calling it an old-fashioned marketing campaign they hope will lure visitors back.

"It's been very slow, very slow," said Virginia Martin, manager of the bookstore at the top of the Bright Angel trail head. "I think we're in for a long siege. This isn't going to turn around quickly."

Grand Canyon spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge said the number of visitors has rebounded some, but it's still off 29%.

According to Tom Wade, who compiles public use statistics for the National Park Service, the terrorist attacks added to a decline that was already in progress over the last year. But the falling numbers spiked after September. For example, visitation at parks and monuments in Washington, D.C., Wade said, was down nearly 20% in September.

The parks most affected are the "destination parks," such as the Grand Canyon--outside big cities and not easy to get to by tourists who don't rent cars. Buses shuttle more visitors into the Grand Canyon than to any other national park and the majority of those tourists, officials say, are from Asia and Europe. At least half the Grand Canyon's tourists come from other countries.

But that commercial bus traffic has fallen steeply, more than 50% in September.

"What I am seeing are a lot of couples who [had planned] honeymoons to Paris," Martin said. "I'm not seeing as many Europeans as we are used to. Definitely not as many Japanese tourists."

Some, especially those who had bought their tickets before the attacks, still come. Britons Shirley Farnsworth of Manchester and Beverly Kendall of London soak in the views and the sunshine from a bench near the rim. They said they would have canceled their trip only if another major attack occurred in the United States.

"We don't regret it, not for one minute, especially when you are here and see the Grand Canyon. Magnificent," Farnsworth said, gazing over the edge.

"We're used to terrorism in the U.K. and we know that life goes on," Kendall said. "You can't let the terrorists win, you know."

The Arizona Office of Tourism cited the decline in foreign visitors as the reason the state's tourism industry lost $200 million in revenue since September, usually high season for the state.

Businesses in Tusayan, the tiny town at the south entrance to the Grand Canyon, report a 60% to 90% drop in sales. This comes at a time of great expansion and a push to open more hotels and restaurants. Hotels, especially, are hurting at the Grand Canyon, where most visitors stay at least one night.

"We took a big hit at first and now we are down about 15%," said Bill Johnston, general manager of National Park Lodges, a private company that operates hotels within the park. "The projections for 2002 don't start to look good until the spring. We're hoping that with the free entrance this week, we'll feel a little rebound. Maybe locals will start coming back."

Johnston said his company will alter its marketing strategy to attract more Americans.

Martin, who runs the bookstore, said she and her staff will be wearing red, white and blue outfits over the weekend.

"These are our parks and we should celebrate our history and culture. Terrorists or no terrorists," she said.

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