A new study by the U.S. Journal of Environmental Management finds that tourism at America's 390 national parks is down 25 percent since 1990. The study's authors blame the U.S. entertainment industry for much of the decline.
Holiday visits to America's national parks grew steadily from the 1930s for more than half a century. Attendance peaked in 1987 at an average of 1.2 visits per person each year.
(National) Park Service spokeswoman Kathy Kupper says whole generations of Americans came of age during the golden age of America's national parks. "Especially after World War II, with the baby boomers having kids and the automobile becoming prevalent, the great American vacation was to pack everybody in the car and see the great national parks."
But the U.S. Journal of Environmental Management says park visitation has dropped by 25 percent in the past 16 years. High fuel costs are a popular culprit.
Mike Pina, of the Automobile Association of America, says there's more to it than that. "People always say in surveys that they are not going to travel because of high gas prices, but the truth is cars are the least expensive way for people to get where they want."
The study's authors say a more likely explanation is the increasing amount of time Americans now spend watching movies, surfing the Internet, and playing video games. It is a trend the Park Service is aware of, but can do little about.
Spokeswoman Kathy Kupper says there are so many things that compete for recreation time. "Today there are a lot more things to compete with the national parks. There are a lot of amusement parks, destination areas, and then even at home a lot more recreational opportunities as well as the increase in video games, home movies, movies, things such as that which also compete with people going to national parks."
The Plunkett market research firm says America's entertainment and media industries generate $200 billion a year. That is a huge plus for the national economy. National parks, on the other hand, are run by the federal government as not-for-profit enterprises. Kathy Kupper says park benefits are not so easily quantified, but are still important. "When you visit a National Park you are visiting a piece of American history. You can look at photographs and you can play video games that maybe simulate things like that, but there is nothing like standing there."