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Challenges and Updates for Groups Visiting National Parks

During the pandemic, the demand for outdoor adventures has increased tremendously, partly due to the safety that being out in the open provides. However, many tour operators and motor coach companies are being met with challenges as travelers are itching to get outside even more and experience all they've missed over the last year.

On May 4, the Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA) hosted a virtual discussion specifically about updated National Park Service (NPS) policies for groups. The conversation—hosted by SYTA President Steve Maehl and SYTA CEO Carylann Assante—covered various NPS updates with the goal of assisting in helping the travel industry navigate future reservations during a time when access has been challenging.

Participants on the call shared their recent experiences—what has worked and what hasn't—in addition to offering insight into why some of these challenges exist.

Currently, in Yosemite National Park, motor coaches over 40 feet aren't permitted, while those visiting the popular El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico are also encountering some additional restrictions.

Grand Canyon National Park recently announced that it will be following in the footsteps of Yellowstone and Grand Teton for commercial tours, with the following regulations having taken effect on May 8, 2021:

  • Operators committing to have all customers/passengers either vaccinated or tested immediately before the trip (72 hours) will be permitted to operate in the park at 100% capacity.
  • Operators that cannot commit to having all customers/passengers either vaccinated or tested immediately before the trip (72 hours) will be limited to 50% of vehicle capacity, or 10 persons (including driver, guide), whichever is greater.

Many have also reported difficulties with obtaining CUAs. It was shared that operators who want to get into the Grand Canyon this year need to be applying now for a CUA (if they haven't already done so during the conditional period).

To address many of these issues, SYTA is serving on a coalition and lobbying in partnership with other travel industry associations. Part of the coalition is Bronwyn Wilson, president, International Motorcoach Group. She noted that there are many moving parts when it comes to NPS, as each one is impacted by individual and varying rules.

"It's a long process and we've been having conversations on your behalf since last August," Wilson said to those on the call. She noted that many of the park websites lack clarity on the current rules and regulations, and when updates are made, there's no context or dates for when those updates were made, making it difficult for those in the industry to know what's the most accurate.

Maehl says Global Travel Alliance has about a dozen trips going to National Parks in the coming weeks, so he understands the frustrations tour operators are experiencing.

"I've been following this coalition for six months and the work they've been doing and I really appreciate all the associations that have come together to work on this," he said. "We just need to keep after it. There's a big demand for outdoor travel right now. Hopefully we can cross some of these hurdles."

Ultimately, current success seems to be reliant on those in the industry sharing valuable information with one another, in addition to reaching out on a consistent basis to the National Parks themselves.

To learn more about the National Park Service updates related to COVID-19, visit NPS.

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for Groups Today.


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