Tracking blamed for drop in park visitors

Visitor numbers at Haleakala National Park decreased by about 140,000 in 2011 compared to 2010, about a 13 percent drop, according to a comparison of spending analysis reports.

In 2011, 956,989 people visited the park, according to a recent peer-reviewed spending analysis of national park visitors across the country conducted by Michigan State University for the National Park Service. A report last year by the same group showed more than 1.1 million visitors to Haleakala National Park in 2010.

The lower numbers could have resulted from a new tracking process the park began in 2011 in which staff counts the actual number of people in a car, said Leslie Young, administrative support assistant at Haleakala National Park.

Previously, cars were counted individually at entrances. The park then applied a formula of 2.5 visitors per car to come up with the visitor numbers.

“We believe the numbers are more accurate now that we have our new tracking method,” Young said Thursday.

Haleakala park visitor numbers for 2012 are back up to a little more than 1 million people, she said.

The spending analysis report showed a decline in Haleakala park visitor-generated spending in communities around the area as well. In 2011, approximately $69 million was spent in nearby communities, down from nearly $75 million in 2010.

Despite the lower numbers, Young said, the park is pleased with what the report showed.

“We are very happy to be helping Maui’s economy,” Young said.

And although visitor counts were down in 2011, the park collected about $2.5 million in fees, which include entrance fees. This was slightly higher than the $2.49 million in fees collected in 2010, Young said. The park keeps 80 percent of the fees, while 20 percent goes into the general fund for the National Park Service.

“We attract visitors from across the U.S. and around the world who come here to experience the park and then spend time and money enjoying the services provided by our neighboring communities and getting to know this amazing part of the country,” said Park Superintendent Natalie Gates, who was named to the post in January.

“The National Park Service is proud to have been entrusted with the care of America’s most treasured places and delighted that the visitors we welcome generate significant contributions to the local, state and national economy,” she said.

In 2011, the report showed $13 billion of direct spending by 279 million park visitors in communities within 60 miles of a national park nationwide. That visitor spending had a $30 billion impact on the entire U.S. economy and supported 252,000 jobs nationwide, a news release said.

Most visitor spending supports jobs in lodging, food and beverage service (63 percent), followed by recreation and entertainment (17 percent), other retail (11 percent), transportation and fuel (7 percent) and wholesale and manufacturing (2 percent).

Maui Visitors Bureau Executive Director Terryl Vencl said in an email that she couldn’t speculate why there may have been fewer visitors to the park in 2011 as compared to 2010. Visitors had begun returning to the island in 2010 after the economic downturn and visitor counts have increased each year since.

Vencl said she can understand why expenditures in outlying communities were down in 2011 as compared to 2010. It is a trend seen in the general visitor market.

“As visitors began their return to vacations after the economic downturn they were very cautious on the spending,” she said. “So if they booked in (2010) but came in (2011) they may have been cutting back on certain expenditures in order to be able to take a vacation,” Vencl wrote in a email.

Expenditures are just now getting back up to numbers prior to the downslide of the economy in 2008, Vencl said.

Even though expenditures from park guests in surrounding communities was lower in 2011, Gwen Arkin of Skyline Eco-Adventures, which has its ziplines just down the hill from the park, is just appreciative of the park and the business it generates for the zipline business.

“We try to take advantage of people going up (to the park) and coming down as much as we can. It’s a strong attraction. We definitely want to be part of people’s experience up and down the mountain,” said Arkin, the company’s marketing and design coordinator.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at