Will the Free Parks Canada Discovery Pass Increase Your Visits to National Parks and Heritage Sites in 2017?

Two weeks ago I received my free Parks Canada season admission pass in the mail. It is the first time I have ever had such a pass and I will admit that the main reason I got one was because it was free. In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, admission to Parks Canada national parks, national historic sites, and national marine conservation areas is free for 2017. It is interesting to me how the free pass and the publicity about it (e.g., news stories of the website being overwhelmed with requests for passes; friends posting pictures with their passes on social media) prompted me to shift my thinking about my Parks Canada visitation habits.

canada-150-discovery-pass

We live more than 2 hours from the closest Parks Canada national park or historic site. When I do get to visit, it is usually once or maybe twice during the summer months and I tend to visit as part of a vacation to Prince Edward Island. As a result, I have never considered getting a park pass (general rule of them is you need to visit 7 days for a pass to be worthwhile). However, granted the opportunity to get one for free, I found myself interested in making use of this opportunity. The pass is appropriately labelled as a “Discovery Pass” and this is most likely how I will use it – as a chance to “discover” parks. Since receiving my pass and brochure, I’ve been reading about some parks – both within and outside my province – for the first time and making plans to try to visit at least 4 this summer.

Declining Park Use

In Canada, there was been a decline of park visitors. In 1988/1989, parks saw 0.46 visits per capita and in 2008/2009 this had decreased to 0.36 visits per capita (Shultis & More, 2011). A look at Parks Canada’s most recent data suggests that park visitor statistics have remained stable through to 2014 when there was an increase in per capita visits in 2014/2015 to 0.38 and in 2015/2016 there were 0.40 visits per capita. These increases are encouraging, but Parks Canada has recognized that it is “faced with the challenge of remaining relevant to Canadians, particularly in some of Canada’s largest cities. Changing demographics, which contribute to shifting leisure and tourism patterns, have had an impact on visitation to Parks Canada heritage places” (Parks Canada, 2016, p. 16). Parks Canada, similar to other agencies in North America that provide park services, seems to understand that its viability may depend on becoming relevant to groups who have historically not made greater use of Parks Canada’s programs and services (Scott & Mowen, 2010).

Encouraging Canadians to Visit Parks

Park fees. Sometimes cost is identified as a barrier to participation in activities and experiences, and this can be especially true if you are unsure what the experience will be like. What benefits might you get from visiting a park? Will a park experience will meet your needs – for adventure, for solitude, for learning something new? By making admission to Parks Canada national parks and heritage sites free, this barrier to exploring an opportunity has been eliminated.

The current government has further committed to making a trip to the park more affordable for families beyond 2017. Beginning in 2018, admission will be free for children under 18 (Trudeau, n.d.). That cost reduction may be relatively insignificant (~$10 for a family with 2 children under 18) when factoring in the cost of travelling to a national park, the cost of equipment needed to have a camping experience, or the cost of feeding the family while visiting or camping. To me, dropping the cost sends a message about the importance of engaging children in nature and developing their interest in the outdoors and in the protection and conservation of our natural environment. It also seems to be a response to Parks Canada’s (2016) awareness that youth are under-represented among those who visit their parks and heritage sites.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact the elimination of a fee for children under 18 along with the development of more technology-based interpretive programs (Parks Canada, 2016) will have. Will more school groups or summer camp programs near national parks consider visiting now knowing that there will be no cost for their young participants and activities may better hold youth’s interest? Is it possible that a $10 savings for a family with two children will reduce cost as a perceived barrier? Will there be greater usage by larger families with three or four children? It will be interesting to see the statistics on visitor use for 2017 and beyond for this age group.

Engaging immigrant families. Parks Canada (2016) notes that 1 in 5 Canadians is foreign born. The report also explains that new Canadians are under-represented in Parks Canada’s visitor base. In an effort to engage immigrant families’ engagement with parks, starting in 2018, new Canadian citizens will also receive free admission for one year. Parks Canada also plans to “undertake focussed awareness, promotion and media initiatives particularly in the key metropolitan areas of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver where large segments of new Canadians live” (p. 40).

Knowledge and skill development. The minister responsible for parks has also been mandated to “ensure that more low- and middle-income families have an opportunity to experience Canada’s outdoors” (para. 26) through an expanded Learn to Camp program. This particular priority appears to recognize that in addition to reducing fees to decrease barriers to park use, lower-income families need support in developing the knowledge and skills to engage in enjoyable park experiences (Zanon, Doucouliagos, Hall,& Lockstone-Binney, 2013).

Adapting to the changing needs of potential visitors. The core mandate of Parks Canada is related to ecology and heritage with activities focused on protection, conservation, and education. In recent years the focus seems to have shifted to revenue generation and recreational tourism. In 2012, Parks Canada faced nearly $30 million in budget cuts which the elimination of 600 staff positions including history/heritage staff, archaeologists, naturalists, curators, and conservation (Galloway, 2012; Syms, 2012). This shift has been concerning to some. As Watson (2016) explained, “the primary purpose of our National Parks is not to get people out camping, it’s to educate them about the natural and cultural values of those parts of Canada.”

But it does seem that Parks Canada is trying to do both. It is seeking to increase the usage of parks by helping people to develop the knowledge and skill to get out and camp and enjoy national parks. It is recognizing there are demands for more diverse accommodations. For example, Fundy National Park in New Brunswick offers campsites, cabins, yurts, and oTENTik (which, Parks Canada explains is a “spacious blend of tent and rustic cabin equipped with beds and furniture on a raised floor”). Parks Canada has recognized the need to offer amenities that other tourism sites are offering and that potential visitors are demanding (e.g., Wi-Fi). Once Canadians become park visitors, then there are opportunities for educating them about ecology and heritage.

Conclusion

As a researcher and as a Canadian, I am curious about what the impact of this initiative in celebration of Canada’s 150 birthday will be. In theory, the free pass should reduce a couple of the perceived barriers to visiting Parks Canada’s parks and heritage sites by lessening the cost and therefore the risk of trying something new. The increased buzz about parks may generate greater interest and curiosity. Canadians may want to participate in the initiative as a way of being patriotic or expressing/ participating in part of the Canadian identity. Hopefully parks and heritage sites are not so busy this year that it has a negative impact on the experiences of visitors!

References

Galloway, G. (2012, July 12). Buget cuts imperil Canada’s national parks. The Globe and Mail. Available at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/budget-cuts-imperil-canadas-national-parks/article4409268/

Parks Canada (2016). 2016-2017 Report on plans and priorities. Available at: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/docs/pc/plans/rpp/rpp2016-17/~/media/docs/pc/plans/rpp/rpp2016-2017/pdf/Report-on-Plans-and-Priorities-Parks-Canada-Agency-2016-17.ashx

Scott, D., & Mowen, A. J. (2010). Alleviating park visitation constraints through agency facilitation strategies. Journal of Leisure Research, 42(4), 535-550.

Shultis, J., & More, T. (2011). American and Canadian national park agency responses to declining visitation. Journal of Leisure Research, 43(1), 110-132.

Syms, E. L. (2012, November 20). Harper government slashes Parks Canada; Trashes Canadian Heritage/History. Available at: http://www.manitobaarchaeologicalsociety.ca/content/harper-government-slashes-parks-canada

Trudeau, J. (n.d.). Minister of Environment and Climate Change mandate letter. Retrieved from http://pm.gc.ca/eng/minister-environment-and-climate-change-mandate-letter

Zanon, D., Doucouliagos, C., Hall, J., & Lockstone-Binney, L. (2013). Constraints to park visitation: A meta-analysis of North American studies. Leisure Sciences, 35(5), 475-493.

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