With free admission, visits to national parks and historic sites jump this year

The federal government will consider what to do with admission fees for national parks beyond Canada’s 150th birthday after this year’s free parks program has proven to be exceptionally popular.

After the federal government decided to eliminate fees for national parks and historic sites for all of 2017, Parks Canada says preliminary estimates show more than 14 million visits between January 1 and July 31.

That’s an increase of 1.5 million over the same period in 2016, or a 12 per cent jump.

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The numbers are for 39 national parks and 82 national historic sites which report attendance numbers. Some parks and sites are currently closed, are brand new or do not report visitor statistics.

While parks attendance has been rising over recent years, the spike this year was double what was seen during the same period the year before and business owners near some of the parks say the free admission is behind it.

“When I talk to a lot of the customers they’re down here for the Canada 150 celebrations,” said Mike Makhlouf, co-owner of Freddy’s restaurant near Point Pelee National Park in southwestern Ontario.

Point Pelee, billed as the southernmost point of Canada and a bird watcher’s paradise, saw the biggest absolute increase in visitors this year, with 130,000 more people passing through the gates. To the end of July, visitors to the park were up 66 per cent and in July alone visitor numbers were up 90 per cent.

Makhlouf said the people started coming in May and haven’t stopped.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of the park closing the gates because there were too many people inside,” he said. “I know it’s happened more than once (this year.)

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said she is thrilled with the visitor numbers so far, and believes when the year is over the government needs to take a look at what the impact was on the local communities and what should be done with the admission fees going forward.

“I think it’s a good time to take a step back and actually look at the broader economic case for national parks and historic sites but certainly no decision has been made to extend it,” she told The Canadian Press in an interview.

The government already planned to eliminate admission fees for anyone under 18 after this year.

The 2016 federal budget set aside $65.4 million to replace lost revenues from the gate fees in 2017. Another $4.7 million was invested to meet anticipated increases in visitors and $5.7 million to produce, order and distribute the free Discovery Pass given to people so they can get into the parks for free.

Joel Reardon, Parks Canada’s Canada 150 spokesman, said 3.7 million discovery passes were ordered online thus far. About 150,000 people have downloaded the Parks Canada app.

Reardon said the parks and historic sites are seeing “record visitation” but it has been manageable with the additional planning and staff hired to keep things on track.

Kathleen Yetman, owner of Birdie’s Perch restaurant and the Point Pelee Trading Post said business this year has just been “fantastic.”

“It’s surpassed my expectations,” said Yetman, who has owned the seasonal restaurant since 2012.

Both Yetman and Makhlouf would be thrilled if the federal government extended the free passes beyond 2017.

So would Heath MacDonald, P.E.I.’s minister of economic development and tourism. Prince Edward Island National Park saw attendance jump by 37 per cent, or more than 101,000 people so far this year and the park saw an increase of 54 per cent in July alone.

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of traffic inside the national park,” said MacDonald. “I would love to see the federal government extend this at least for another year.”

The increase in visitors has not been uniform. The top 10 busiest national parks account for 75 per cent of visitors to all parks and were responsible for 66 per cent of the increase in traffic. Seven parks, most of them in remote locations in the North, saw a drop in visitors.

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