Lisa Simon, president of NTA, the tour industry association, testified at a joint hearing of U.S. House of Representatives Committees on Oversight & Government Reform and Natural Resources about the effect of the government shutdown on tour operators – even as Congress finally seemed to be getting its act together on Oct. 16 on the government shutdown and debt ceiling limits.
According to Simon, a significant majority of NTA’s 700 member tour operators offer packages to the national parks and have been forced into crisis mode. “An abrupt shutdown of all 401 national park units cannot come without significant disruptions and costs,” she said, in her statement before the committee. According to Simon, 91 percent reported that they had had to cancel or postpone tours since the Oct. 1 closure, and 56 percent saw a decrease in visitors within days of the shutdown.
Though the shutdown was anticipated as a possibility in the weeks before it happened, most tour operators were caught off guard as to the extent of the closures. Communications about the closings had been minimal, she said. Tour operators plan their tours six to 18 months in advance, Simon said, so even a few weeks’ notice was extremely disruptive to business.
“Since Oct. 1, tour operators and their supplier partners have been scrambling to reroute itineraries and find alternative destinations and activities on a daily basis,” she said. “And given the uncertainty of when the shutdown will end, they continue to redesign future tours.”
The issues confronted by tour operators during the shutdown include “refunds demanded by customers, cancelled departures, alternative activity selection and bookings, displacement from national park-based hotels and restaurants and postponed trips.”
To communicate the degree of devastation now being experienced by the tour industry as a result of the shutdown, Simon read a few quotes from tour operators in response to a survey, including the following: “We laid off employees and closed for the year a month early.” “These (international) visitors will return to China, Japan, Korea, France, Italy, Germany, and the UK with bad feelings towards U.S. tourism and towards our tour operators and bus companies for not accommodating them (at our national parks).” “Our business as a tour operator revolves around national parks, sites, etc. Not having access to these items has crippled us.” “We are dying.” “This shutdown has made it very difficult for us to operate tours.”
According to Simon, in addition to the immediate losses, the shutdown will have lasting effects on both the U.S. travel industry and international visitation. “The closure of the national parks is a big part of the reason that countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia have issued travel warnings about travel to the United States,” she said. “The U.S. Travel Association estimates that we are losing $152 million daily.”
In addition, NTA has been working with China to help create safe and reliable travel arrangements for Chinese tourists, and the shutdown was creating huge problems in that arena. “The beginning of October was ‘Golden Week’ in China, which is a major vacation week, and the U.S. is a major “dream” destination for the Chinese,” said Simon. “NTA tour operators serving this rapidly growing inbound market have reported disappointed and angry Chinese customers who were unable to visit the national parks during their once-in-a-lifetime trip to the U.S. Many of these inbound China operators were not familiar with what parks and attractions were federal versus state and local, and thus had an even greater challenge finding information about their planned tours.”