An economic analysis of national park visitation rates
Watson, Christopher Lawrence
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This thesis estimates visitation to U.S. national parks over the period 1993 -2010 in attempt to determine what factors influence visitation rates over time. Three factors are predicted to be important determinants of national park visitation rates. These factors are entrance fees, travel costs (represented by driving costs), and income. Both travel costs and income have been shown to be significant determinants of national park visitation rates in the economic literature; however, the effect of entrance fees on visitation rates is inconclusive. Determining how the factors of interest influence visitation rates is accomplished by first developing a theoretical demand and supply model of park visits. The theoretical model informs the empirical model with predictions for how changes in entrance fees affect the quantity of visits when fees are above, below, or at the market-clearing level of the fee. These predictions are tested empirically by estimating a linear model of both annual and monthly park-level visitation to a sample of 165 national parks. The main results of the analysis show that income is not a significant determinant of national park visitation rates, but that both travel costs and entrance fees have a negative effect on visitation. Further, more detailed estimation procedures that analyze visitation to parks pooled based on designation and level of use show that the effect of entrance fees on national park visitation rates is both park-specific and season-specific.