The Canadian Press
OTTAWA–If you make it free, they will come.
Parks Canada’s free entry program for the country’s 150th birthday saw Canadians and other visitors flock to national parks and historic sites in record numbers.
An extra 2.5 million visitors poured through the gates in 2017.
In the first eight months of 2018, however, the number of visitors fell 10 percent from the same period in 2017.
In some parks that saw the biggest jumps in 2017, visits are down more than 30 percent.
“We expected we would see a big increase in visitation in 2017,” said Ed Jager, director of visitor experience for Parks Canada.
“We also knew that we would see sort of a return to the previous trend.”
Jager said Parks Canada’s chief social scientist (Parks Canada has a chief social scientist, as well as an economist and data analysts) predicted exactly what the free admissions in 2017 would do to visitor numbers.
He noted the good news is that the 2018 numbers still are higher than in the previous years when there were fees, reflecting ongoing marketing efforts to keep visitor numbers growing.
Entry still is free for anyone under age 18, which it didn’t used to be, but adults once again pay between $3.60 and $9.80 for day passes to different parks.
The number of visitors to national parks between January and August was up about three percent compared to 2016.
Visits to historic sites are about even, although final numbers could change because some visits, such as by tour groups, might not all be accounted for yet.
Kathleen Yetman, owner of Birdie’s Perch restaurant and the Point Pelee Trading Post, said her business had never seen anything quite like what happened in 2017.
“It was a gift,” she remarked.
Yetman’s place is just outside the entry gates to Point Pelee National Park, billed as the southernmost point of Canada and a birdwatcher’s paradise.
It saw the biggest increase in visitors of any park, with 217,229 additional visitors in 2017 compared with the year before.
The number of visitors in July and August was double the previous year’s.
Yetman said the crash in 2018 was expected but noted things still were busier this year than in 2016.
“It was still very brisk and I do think 2017 brought people in and that they came back in 2018,” she remarked.
The number of visitors to Point Pelee fell almost 40 percent in the first eight months of the year, compared with 2017, but still is about six percent higher than in 2016.
Yetman said she would love for Ottawa to decide to make all parks free again but isn’t expecting it happen.
She noted the government is clearly working on keeping Point Pelee attractive, with improvements to infrastructure.
“Point Pelee just keeps getting better,” she enthused.
Banff National Park, with nearly three million visitors, is the country’s most popular, and its attendance numbers varied very little regardless of the fees.
But the Banff Park Museum inside it, with a normal entry fee of $3.90, saw attendance soar 230 percent to more than 72,000 people in the first eight months of 2017.
For the same time in 2018, visits plunged to below 30,000, though that’s still a few thousand more than visited in 2016.
The government estimated the freebie year would cost about $76 million in foregone admission fees and extra costs to handle all the visits.
Jager said the biggest leftover benefit for the parks from “Canada 150” is the two million people who signed up for e-mail updates and notices about park programs.
That helps market the parks and has resulted in a significant increase in the number of people buying annual passes to get into any national park, he noted.