Economic Value Of America's National Parks, 2012

America budgets some $2.5 billion a year for its national parks. In return it gets not only wild and beautiful places, cultural landmarks and more urban lungs than you might imagine but also almost a quarter of a million jobs, $9.3 billion in wages and other income, a $15.8 billion contribution to GDP and $26.8 billion in sales of goods and services.

Those numbers, for 2012, come from the newly published annual study conducted for the National Park Service (NPS) on the economic impact of the National Park System. That year, America's 401 national parks attracted 282 million recreational visits, both day trips and vacations, with park visitors spending $14.7 billion in the parks and within 60 miles of one. The survey calculates the direct and indirect economic effects of that for local businesses and the national economy.

As to be expected, hotels, motels, and bed-and-breakfasts saw the most benefit. Park visitors supported 40,000 jobs in the lodging industry and $4.5 billion in output of goods and services, the survey finds. Next were places to eat and drink. Park visitors spent $3 billion in restaurants and bars, supporting 51,000 jobs. Park visitors also spent $1.1 billion buying food at grocery and convenience stores.

The economic heavyweights within the National Park System are two of the most popular destinations that year. Visitors to Blue Ridge Parkway spent $902 million in 2012, the survey says, generating more than 12,000 jobs in North Carolina and Virginia, $425 million in income and $1.2 billion of goods and services. Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw $741 million of visitor spending, creating almost 11,000 jobs in North Carolina and Tennessee, $322 million in income and $952 million in goods and services produced.

In terms of raw numbers, California was the only state to top North Carolina as an economic beneficiary of the National Park System, with more than 20,287 jobs againt 16,703 and $2.1 million in goods and services produced against $1.5 billion. In both states those numbers account for less than one half a percentage point of total employment. In Alaska, the 16,181 jobs the survey says are national-park dependent account for one in every 20 non-farm jobs in the state.

The 2012 study has changed significantly the way it calculates the impact of visitor spending, including redefinitions of each park's gateway communities, so comparisons with earlier years can't meaningfully be made. 

The 16-day government shutdown in October last year will likely take a bite out of the economic benefit of the national parks system when it comes to calculating 2013's numbers. A preliminary estimate for October puts the cost in that month alone at $414 million in lost business for communities in and around the parks.

Economic Impact of NPS Visitors
Sector Jobs Labor Income ($m) Value Added* ($m) Output** ($m)
Direct Effects
Restaurants and bars 50,741 1,172 1,702 2,964
Hotels, motels, and B&Bs 38,707 1,363 2,577 4,455
Amusements and recreations 28,604 717 1,029 1,490
Transit and ground transportation services 8,315 380 725 1,071
Retail establishments 7,051 202 331 411
Grocery and convenience stores 5,200 163 220 306
Camping and other accommodations 3,970 149 198 359
Gas stations 2,740 100 151 201
Total Direct Effects 145,328 4245 6,932 11,257
Secondary Effects 97,384 5,102 8,877 15,497
Total Effects 242,712 9,347 15,809 26,754
Source: 2012 National Park Visitor Spending Effects; *=contribution to gross domestic product (GDP), **= value of sales of goods and services produced.

See Also: 

Most Popular National Parks

National Parks Guide