Seeing the real America through national parks

Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

By Eric Freedman

If we want international visitors to understand what makes America so special a country, we need to do more than talk in lofty terms about constitutional rights and economic opportunities. We need to show them more than Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Washington or New York City.

They need to see our national parks – the oldest and most extensive such system in the world. After all, cities are cities. The skyscrapers of Chicago, Shanghai, Tokyo and Dubai are much of the same, but no place else has the geysers of Yellowstone, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon and the towering giants of Sequoia.

The National Park Service doesn’t collect data on the number or percentage of international visitors to our parks. However, the Visa International Travel (VISIT) database shows a significant proportion of international visitors at major national parks in the West – as high at 14 percent at the Grand Canyon and 11 percent at Yellowstone.

Visa Business and Economic Insights estimated that 35 percent of foreign visitors to the Grand Canyon last summer also visited another nearby park, according to Visa estimates. That was most true for travelers from Europe — at least 40 percent of them included a national park in California Utah or Nevada in their visit.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore doesn’t gather annual statistics on the number of international visitors, Ranger Merrith Baughman said, but a weeklong July 2009 survey counted international visitors from 12 countries, making up 2 percent of total visitation.

A study published this year in the Journal of Park & Recreation Management cited a rise in both the overall number of visitors to Yellowstone and the proportion of them from outside the U.S.   It said that there’s been little research about international visitor experiences in U.S. national parks and noted that “international visitors may have different … perceptions about wildlife.”

Using Commerce Department and U.S. Travel Association data, National Parks Traveler reported that “more than a third of all international visitors to the United States find time to visit the National Park System. Of the 38.4 million overseas visitors who came to the United States in 2015, 35.4 percent, or 13.6 million, traveled to a park destination.”

Their presence is highly visible, and we as Americans should be proud of that.

On a recent trip to California, I heard a wide range of languages spoken by my fellow visitors to Yellowstone National Park and Muir Woods National Monument. Regardless of our native tongues, we marveled together at the redwoods of Muir Woods – nature’s equivalent of skyscrapers – and at Yosemite’s cascading waterfalls and the mega-domes of El Capitan and Half Dome.

Like me, international visitors rafted along the slow-moving Merced River in Yosemite Valley, dined at Yosemite’s historic Majestic Hotel and Big Tree Lodge, saw Ansel Adam’s stunning black-and-white photos at the art gallery and drove the winding up-and-down roads that lay open the vistas of mountains and valleys.

This is the real America uniqueness that we see in our Great Lakes region as well – the colored cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the moose of Isle Royale National Park, the dunes of Sleeping Bear and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshores.

These are among the glories that America openly shares with the world. They should spur us a country to reject politically motivated efforts to shrink our irreplaceable and iconic national public lands and block their expansion.

As for the global image of America, we regard the Statute of Liberty as emblematic of a welcoming country, but many of us don’t know that it’s also a national monument– and thus part of the national park system.

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