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Arizona’s National Park Service sites saw overall visitor decline in 2012

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PHOENIX – While the National Park Service saw a slight increase in visitors across the country in 2012, its sites in Arizona recorded a third straight year of overall decline.

Fifteen of 21 NPS sites in Arizona saw decreases in visitors last year, while Grand Canyon National Park, with 4 million-plus visitors, was among those recording modest gains.

In all, 9.97 million people visited NPS parks, monuments, historic sites and recreation areas in Arizona last year, a 1.5 percent decline from 2011. Nationally, NPS recorded 282 million visitors in 2012, up a little more than 1 percent.

Cheryl Cothran, director of the Arizona Hospitality Research and Research Center at Northern Arizona University, said national parks are up against a younger generation that isn’t as interested in recreating outdoors.

“Many people have cited the obesity crisis as a reason that people aren’t getting out and doing things outdoors as much as they used to,” she said. “Kids just don’t show as much of an interest in playing outside anymore because they want to play video games inside.”

Visitors to NPS sites in Arizona have declined by nearly 22 percent since 1993, a time that Cothran said was one of the state’s peak years for tourism.

“During the mid-90s, visitation from Europe was high and the baby boomers were in their prime travel years,” she said. “Since then, international visitation has been going down and we’re getting fewer visitors from Europe because of economic problems and an aging population.”

Grand Canyon National Park drew 4.42 million visitors in 2012, an increase of 2.9 percent, and ranked as the 14th most visited in the nation.

Other Arizona sites with increases included Petrified Forest National Park (664,857 visitors, up 8.3 percent) and Saguaro National Park (634,286 visitors, up 4 percent). Canyon de Chelly National Monument drew 828,523 visitors, virtually the same as 2011.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the second most most popular NPS site in Arizona with 1.57 million visitors, drew 6.3 million overall and was down 1.7 percent.

Among other sites that saw declines was Montezuma Castle National Monument with 455,305 visitors, down 20.1 percent. Wupatki National Monument had 201,365 visitors, down 14.8 percent, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument had 177,793, down 4 percent, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument had 161,743, down 20.6 percent.

However, Cothran said those numbers can be misleading.

“The number of people actually recreating at some of these parks is different than the number of people driving through one,” she said, “but in Arizona there’s still a very strong draw for people to come recreate or visit places like the Grand Canyon.”

Cothran also said that unlike states where national parks are near large metropolitan areas, Arizona’s national parks attract people from around the world. And while they’re in the area, tourists usually help the state’s economy by spending money at restaurants, hotels and stores, she said.

“People have to make a point of traveling long distance and spending a lot of money to get here,” Cothran said.

Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said the Grand Canyon alone will always draw its fair share of attention.

“Between the grandeur of the Grand Canyon and the simple number of parks in the state, Arizona ranks very high on people’s list of places to visit in the country to see a national park,” he said.