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How International Visitors Can Help Care for America’s Natural Wonders

  • Madison Yablonski
  • A washed-out road at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. © NPS

    This article was originally published in Real Clear Energy.

    Run-down bathrooms, cracked roads, crumbling bridges, and neglected campsites—if that’s not the National Park experience you signed up for, you’re not alone. However, this experience is growing more common to those who visit our beloved parks. 

    The National Park system would need an estimated $22 billion to address all of its overdue repairs. Neglected maintenance in our parks presents tangible challenges to visitors and park employees alike, with condemnable employee housing at some sites, wastewater polluting streams at others, and park assets deteriorating across the country. Despite the fact that visitation has steadily increased for years, park budgets have not managed to keep up with inflation. Charging entrance fees for foreign visitors could help to fill the gap. 

    Prior to the pandemic, the natural wonders, stunning vistas, and sprawling landscapes of our national parks attracted roughly 14 million international visitors annually, about one-third of all foreign visitors to the United States. Yet these visitors contribute less than domestic visitors to the overall cost of running parks since they do not pay U.S. income taxes. The National Park Service Budget has been roughly a little over 3 billion dollars. That means each of the 330 million Americans contributes $10 a year to the National Park Service budget—whether they visit a park or not. 

    By implementing a modest surcharge for international visitors, the park system could significantly increase its overall fee revenue. Charging each international visitor a mere $25 surcharge could raise a whopping $330 million per year. That’s double the current recreation fee revenue for the park system. 

    It’s not unheard of for other countries to charge an international visitor fee. Dozens of countries charge park visitors from abroad more than local visitors. For instance, at Kruger National Park in South Africa, famous for its safaris, foreign visitors pay a $25 dollar fee per day, whereas locals pay roughly $6. Tourists visiting the Galapagos Islands pay a total fee of $100, while Ecuadorian citizens pay $6

    Foreign visitors to our national parks are already willing to pay huge travel expenses to reach our destination locations, so a small surcharge won’t deter their plans. For the majority of tourists, gate fees would likely represent less than 1% of total trip costs. Asking international tourists who do not support U.S. national parks through taxes to pay a little more is not only reasonable, but it would also provide additional resources to improve the stewardship of “America’s best idea.”

    Those of us who have the privilege to live near a national park know that no two parks are the same. Subsequently, no two parks have the same problems. Implementing a surcharge on international visitation would help parks address their unique problems. Park superintendents and other local staff work and create a life in each of their respective parks. Superintendents have the most up-to-date information about their own maintenance needs and how to meet them. Recreation fees are particularly useful to them because the majority of fee receipts are retained and spent where they are collected, without being subject to budgetary processes in the far-off Capitol. 

    Many of the most popular national parks such as Yosemite or Arches already receive a significant portion of their budgets from fee revenues. Generating even more fee collections would equip local staff with more resources to meet the needs of each park and serve their own visitors. And the existing fee system ensures that the supplemental funding from an international surcharge would actually help mitigate the stress that increased visitation is putting on our parks.

    If someone is flying across the world to see America’s natural wonders, we want their experience to be characterized by scenic wildlife, fresh air, and jaw-dropping views—not run-down outhouses, cracked roads, and crumbling infrastructure. But that difference has a price tag. Let’s do what we can to ensure that every visitor enjoys our national parks at their best by implementing a modest international visitor surcharge. 

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