For Canada’s 150th birthday, the government is granting free admission to all of the country’s national parks in 2017. But for already over-crowded parks like Banff, that may not be a good thing.
According to Banff mayor Karen Sorenson, the Rocky Mountain town isn’t prepared for the huge influx of visitors they’re expecting.
“It’s the number of vehicles that are causing us stress,” Sorensen told CBC News. “Even this last summer, we had 80 percent of our days in July and August that fell over what we consider our vehicle-per-day capacity of 24,000 vehicles.”
Although superintendent Dave McDonough told CBC that Parks Canada will be meeting with town officials to come up with a plan that will minimize congestion and parking issues, Sorenson is still concerned about how quickly summer is approaching.
“When I think about real operational tactics, like additional transit or intercept parking lots…I’m just not sure that can happen in this timeframe.”
She says she’d also like to come up with a plan that doesn’t just work for 2017, but can help in the long-term as well. Banff has long been Canada’s most popular national park, attracting more than 3 million visitors each year, and that number is steadily growing.
“We’ve already seen a good increase in [visitation]. How much more is possible, we don’t know. We’ll have to see that. But we’re preparing,” Greg Danchuk, visitor experience manager for the Banff field unit, told CBC in September.
According to that report, more than 1.5 million of those visitors came between the months of April and July this year, which is an increase of 4.9 percent over last year.
Other Rocky Mountain parks, like Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper experienced similar increases last year, though their numbers were still only a fraction of Banff’s.
Danchuk said that popular sites like Lake Louise will continue to have shuttle buses running from parking lots, and they will try to tell people about some of the lesser-visited locations within the park to spread people around. Eventually, though, something’s got to give.
Although the weak Loonie may have contributed to last year’s increase in numbers, American national parks are seeing an uptake in visitors as well. According to CN Traveler, Utah’s Zion National Park has seen a 35 percent increase in visitors over the past decade. As the park’s soil continues to erode and campgrounds become increasingly crowded, Zion is actually considering limiting the number of people allowed in the park at peak times.
Although a limit like this could benefit both the park and visitor experience, for now, Banff officials merely recommend booking as soon as the season’s reservation system opens in January.
“If you want to camp, book ahead. Plan your visit. It will be a much better experience,” Danchuck says.