Visiting one of California’s natural treasures will be a little bit easier next summer: Yosemite National Park announced it is no longer requiring reservations to enter the park for summer 2023.
The reservation system was put in place in 2020 to slow the flow of people flocking to the park during the early months of the pandemic. And the system remained through 2021 and even this past summer, partly due to park renovations.
While some environmentalists hailed the decision to limit the number of park visitors, the reservation system put a squeeze on Mariposa County’s tourism economy. The park saw 3.3 million visitors in 2021, according to data from the National Park Service, down from 5 million in 2016. Park representatives admit they’ve struggled to address overcrowding and congestion, and they hope to apply the lessons learned over the last three summers to improve the visitor experience while preserving Yosemite’s natural splendor.
Scott Gediman, Park Ranger and spokesperson for Yosemite National Park, sat down with CapRadio’s Insight Host Vicki Gonzalez to provide more details about the decision, and Jonathan Farrington, Executive Director of the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau, shares how this decision is expected to impact the county’s tourism industry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On what made the park suspend its visitor reservation system for summer 2023
Gediman: Well, we peaked in visitation at over 5 million visitors back in 2016, and then [we’ve seen] about 4 million since then. As folks know, some of the gridlock and traffic congestion has been a problem. We learned a lot, as you mentioned, in 2020 and 2021 with the reservation system during the pandemic.
And so what we're doing [this year] is we're building on what we've learned the last three summers. We have a lot of those renovation projects that are coming to completion, this includes Glacier Point Road being renovated, a new welcome center in Yosemite Valley with additional parking and an improved traffic circulation pattern. So our idea is to not have the reservation system for next summer for 2023. We're launching the planning effort and we really want public input on how to manage Yosemite into the future.
On how the park plans to deal with congestion this summer
Gediman: Just next week, we're launching our plan. It's called the Visitor Access Management Plan, and the first step of this is environmental assessment through the NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. We're looking for input from everyone: from park visitors, from people like Jonathan, the business community, elected officials. And we want people to bring these issues to the table, as I mentioned.
On how the park plans to staff a summer with more visitors
Gediman: Here in Yosemite — like everyone else around in the private industry and outside of the park — is really facing staffing challenges. This is a challenge throughout the National Park system. We're simply not seeing as many people apply as they used to. And so we are making a concerted effort to go to job fairs to let people know jobs are available and post on social media.
So you're absolutely right. Both us, with the National Park Service and Yosemite Hospitality — a great partner that runs all of the hotels, restaurants, retail establishments, things like that — are really looking at filling jobs. That's actually what we're doing now during the off season, is looking at really staffing up because with both these improvements in place and no reservations, we're anticipating a busy summer.
On why staffing has become a challenge
Gediman: I've been with the National Park Service for over 30 years now and I love it. But just over the last, I don't know, five, 10 years, there have been issues with things like living in remote areas, not a lot of technology, some housing challenges, cost of living, all of those kinds of things. And so, although we're here in Yosemite, [employees] still need to fill up our cars with gas and pay bills and things like that. Those are the kinds of real-world issues we're grappling with and doing the best we can to try to attract some good people to come work here in the park.
On how the reservation system impacted tourism in Mariposa County
Farrington: We do welcome the decision to postpone the reservation system for a year. Scott has mentioned a number of those reasons. I think an opportunity to have local community members, businesses and not just Mariposa County and surrounding counties be part of that conversation and provide ideas is really important.
Mariposa County is a supremely rural county. We have just over 17,000 residents and 1,500 square miles. Fifty percent of our county is relying on tourism for its jobs, and there's just not the amount of space to diversify our economy. We're almost 90% national or protected lands through the Williamson Act.
So the reservation system, pandemic and fires have had a great impact economically in our county. We've seen revenues drop from 2019 over $475 million based on tourism to almost half of that during the first year of the pandemic in about three quarters, about $370 million last year. So we're welcoming the break.
On where the biggest impact of a decrease in tourism was felt in Mariposa County
Farrington: As mountain folk, as we like to call ourselves, we’re pretty resilient and the community is resilient, but it has had a tremendous impact. We did see quite a drop in population between the prior census and the 2020 census. A lot of people had to leave during the pandemic because of the loss of jobs, housing and other things.
Visitation is only expected to be about 70% of normal next year. But yet the revenue, the amount of money people are spending is almost 100 or 110% [higher] because of inflation, increased costs of flights, rental cars, lodging. There will be fewer people next year, so we aren't as concerned over a vehicle congestion issue this coming year, which gives [us] a good break.
On hopes for what tourists will experience when they visit Yosemite and Mariposa County in the future
Farrington: I'd like to quote a fire superintendent at Yosemite National park, and he said that, you know, eventually with the reservation system, the opportunities really come from a commercial perspective. There may be changes that ultimately restrict some access to personal vehicles, but we've seen a couple [commercial tour] companies move their operations from San Francisco here locally to provide pay-to-use tours. The Yosemite Area Regional Transit system is quite robust and provides great ways to access some of the national park. We'll continue to educate and show that there are ways that we can essentially improve the visitor experience while still maximizing the number of vehicles that can get in the park.
Gediman: We want people to have a quality experience in the park, and also protect the resources. As Jonathan mentioned, we want to strike that balance to get people into the park … but at the same time, we have an obligation to protect the park resources and manage visitation. So the perfect thing that we're looking for is finding that balance.
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