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Tourism experts say the Baby Boomers’ preference for cushier vacations, including traveling by recreational vehicle, is contributing to a decline in campers and other visitors at parks nationwide.
According to an Associated Press report, Maine’s Acadia National Park saw annual visitation fall 15% from 1999 to 2004. Only 72,000 people camped out there last year, a drop of 22% in the past decade.
Nationwide, camping at national parks fell 12% between 1999 and 2004.
The aging population is just part of the reason, said Jim Gramann, a professor at Texas A&M University and the visiting chief social scientist for the National Park Service.
Other factors include hectic lifestyles, competing recreational options, an uncertain economy, a drop in international visitors, shorter vacations and even an increase in ethnic populations unfamiliar with the park system.
“As people get older they may stop visiting parks for health reasons or because they’ve already been, and the younger visitors who are more technologically sophisticated and who have grown up in a digital environment may not be attracted,” he said. “People are asking ‘Do you have wireless in your campground?'”
Boomers are opting for recreational vehicles, dude ranches and lodges. They’re also taking amenity-filled vacations on cruise ships and buying vacation homes near the beach or mountains, said Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition in Washington, D.C.
The declines don’t mean the parks are deserted. There were 276.9 million visits to the National Park System last year.
Many parks have reached carrying capacity and can barely handle more visitors, and some are trying to encourage visitors to park their cars and use shuttle buses to reduce traffic.
Visitation also is down sharply in Maine’s rugged North Woods, a region that has drawn people for decades to climb Mount Katahdin, fish for trout and salmon, hunt deer and moose, and camp.
And people who do visit the North Maine Woods aren’t staying as long, said Al Cowperthwaite, whose organization handles camping reservations for the region.
“People still like to have a remote experience, but they want to do it in three days and be back home connected to the Internet and their cell phones that are ingrained in our society these days,” Cowperthwaite said.
That’s especially true for kids, said Butch Street, who runs the National Park Service’s statistics office.
“These kids are looking for high-powered stuff, and the idea of watching a sunset is boring for them,” Street said. “I don’t think they understand that the idea is to give your mind a break.”