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Sustainable Tourism Solutions: Innovations from the National Park Service

By William Crozer

April 30, 2024

national parks sustainable tourism practices

Global hotspots are grappling with the perils of overtourism, sparking significant backlash and novel interventions. 

In Spain’s Canary Islands, thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the surge in visitors, while locations in Japan and Austria are resorting to building fences to discourage photography. 

With its ambitious plan to charge tourists, even Venice has faced chaos, underscoring the complexities of managing tourist influx. 

As these destinations search for solutions, the National Park Service in the United States is also making pivotal changes to address similar challenges, aiming to protect natural treasures while accommodating unprecedented visitor demand.

A recent article from the New York Times describes the changes and how they’ll impact visitors. 

“In some parks, the level of demand is exceeding the capacity for which infrastructure was designed or is outpacing the National Park Service’s ability to sustainably support visitation. This trend is resulting in the need to explore new strategies to protect natural and cultural resources and provide opportunities for safe and meaningful visitor experiences.”

Kathy Kupper, National Parks Service Public Affairs Specialist

Implementation of Reservation Systems to Manage Overcrowding

To address the challenges of overcrowding, Muir Woods National Monument pioneered the requirement for year-round reservations starting in 2017. 

Soon after, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain and Glacier National Parks followed suit, implementing reservation systems that included day-use permits and timed visitor entries during 2020 and 2021. Other parks like Arches, Zion and the Grand Canyon soon followed with measures like shuttle systems and lotteries to manage visitor access and congestion.

Now, additional parks are adopting reservation systems to regulate access. Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, Haleakalā National Park in Maui, Hawaii and Cadillac Summit Road in Maine’s Acadia National Park have all introduced some form of reservation in 2024. 

While the controls help, some visitors have expressed dismay with the reservation systems, lamenting the loss of spontaneous, accidental visits and the lack of first-come, first-served opportunities. Others have voiced concerns about the added complexity and planning required, which they feel detracts from the freedom traditionally associated with national park visits.

The feedback opens the opportunity for DMOs that depend on nearby parks to do more for their visitors: 

  • Educational Campaigns: Launch campaigns to explain the benefits of reservation systems, stressing their role in both enhancing visitor experiences and preserving natural resources. 
  • Promoting Off-Peak Visits: Encourage visits during off-peak times and shoulder seasons to reduce the impact of reservation systems on the visitor experience and to see the park’s natural beauty in a different light.
  • Showcasing Alternative Destinations: Highlight lesser-known parks and attractions, including diverse opportunities in areas without reservation requirements. This strategy helps redistribute visitor traffic and introduces new experiences. The recent redesign of is a good example of this. 
  • Creating Positive Narratives: Utilize marketing to share positive stories and testimonials about planned visits, underscoring the advantages of less crowded and sustainable park experiences.

Changes to the America the Beautiful Pass

First introduced in 2007, the America the Beautiful Pass has facilitated access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites, enabling people to explore a wide range of national parks, monuments and historical sites at a reasonable cost. 

By covering entrance fees, the pass encourages more frequent visits. It allows families and groups to enjoy the rich natural and cultural heritage of the United States together and with ease. 

But, like your Netflix log-in, the free use is a little less free. 

Starting in 2024, the America the Beautiful pass will require a single holder, who must be present with ID at entry. Before the change, the pass could have been shared by two parties, and enforcement was a little laxer. 

For DMOs, this presents an opportunity to proactively communicate the new America the Beautiful Pass requirements to visitors. By informing and reminding them well before their travels, DMOs can help prevent confusion at park entries, ensuring a smooth visitor experience that fosters repeated visits.

Expansion of Digital and Accessible Services

Improving visitor digital experiences is also a top priority for the National Park Service. 

Recent enhancements to, the official portal for reserving federal lands, have improved the user experience. The introduction of an alert system for campsite availability and the addition of more reservable locations streamline the planning process for visitors. Furthermore, a Spanish-language option has been integrated into the website to cater to a diverse audience. has also been updated with a search filter specifically designed to locate ADA-compliant accommodations easily. $1.3 billion from the Great American Outdoors Act to improve accessibility features. This addition ensures that all users, regardless of ability, can efficiently plan their visits. has significantly enhanced its functionality by introducing a search filter specifically designed to locate ADA-compliant accommodations easily. This update is part of a broader initiative, supported by a $1.3 billion investment from the Great American Outdoors Act, aimed to improve accessibility features across national parks. 

This strategic enhancement ensures that all users can efficiently plan their visits regardless of ability, reflecting the National Park Service’s commitment to inclusivity and accessibility in its physical locations and digital offerings.

sustainable tourism practices national parks

Leading the Way in Sustainable Travel: Insights and Innovations

While the NY Times article is describing what’s coming, it’s actually old news.

Educational campaigns and showcasing alternative features within a destination were a core component of Visit Lake Tahoe’s “Awe and Then Some” campaign. 

Promoting shoulder season travel is at the core of Visit San Luis Obispo’s “MidWeekend Campaign” and drove us to conduct first-party research on shoulder season travelers. We also partnered with Visit SLO to develop a sub-brand to reinforce the city’s commitment to sustainability, Sustainable SLO.

The redesigned website for Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Board has trip planning features highlighting activities outside the park’s boundaries. The site also provides WCAG 2.1 Level AA ADA Compliance, ensuring accessibility standards align with the visitors’’ experience. 

We’ve engaged with leaders in sustainable travel, including Mani Lamichhane, Director of the Nepal Tourism Board; Jessica Blotter, CEO and Co-Founder of Kind Traveler; Molly Cano, Economic Development & Tourism Manager of the City of San Luis Obispo; and Carl Ribaudo, President & Chief Strategist of SMG Consulting.

For Noble, it’s evident that sustainable travel is not just a trend but a transformative shift in the tourism industry. 

From educational campaigns to inclusive web design, these initiatives exemplify our commitment to promoting sustainability and enhancing visitor experiences for our clients. 

If you’re looking to incorporate sustainable marketing strategies into your destination’s approach, connect with us. Our team is ready to help you craft meaningful campaigns that resonate with today’s conscious travelers.

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