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Attendance down at almost every national park in Alberta, but it isn’t all bad news

After free admission year, attendance drops in Alberta parks
WATCH ABOVE: Attendance is down at nearly every national park in Alberta. Admission fees were reinstated following Canada 150 celebrations. But as Julia Wong reports, one park says it's not a concern.

Attendance is down at nearly every national park in Alberta this year, but the promotion officer at one park said the overall admissions trend there is on the rise.

According to numbers collected by Alberta Tourism, attendance in 2018 is down compared to last year.

There was a two per cent decrease at Banff National Park, a 29 per cent decrease at Elk Island National Park, a 31 per cent decrease at Waterton Lakes National Park and a 39 per cent decrease at Wood Buffalo National Park.

There is no change in attendance at Jasper National Park this year, compared to 2017.

READ MORE: Canada 150 by the numbers: 87% of Canadians participated in at least one event

Last year, admission to national parks across the country was waived for all visitors as part of the Canada 150 celebrations, prompting enormous interest from visitors. Parks Canada has since announced that the fee is permanently waived for children, though adults will still have to pay.

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READ MORE: Kids still get into national parks for free, but adults will pay in 2018

“We did expect that little bit of decline, for sure, once you have those admission fees back in place,” said Brennan Bunko, promotion officer for Elk Island National Park.

“We are really happy with our results from our free admission year.”

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Bunko said the park saw a 54 per cent increase in visitation in 2017 compared to 2016, with more than 525,000 visitors taking advantage of the free admission.

READ MORE: Elk Island National Park sees jump in visitors with free Parks Canada passes

While the numbers have dropped in 2018, he said admission this year is about nine per cent higher than in 2016, contributing to an overall upward trend.

“Between 2011 and 2016, we actually have increased our visitation nearly double.

“So we just continue to see our overall growth, with a little bit of a decline from 2017,” Bunko said.

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The park is trying to maintain interest by increasing the number and quality of programs at the site as well as updating infrastructure, such as parking lots, bathrooms and shower facilities.

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Bunko said his park is working to stay relevant to visitors.

RELATED: Free shuttle between Edmonton and Elk Island National Park begins this month

“We’re at outreach events more regularly, connecting with people, letting them know what to do to prepare to come out to a park,” he said.

Watch below – Nov. 23, 2018: The Notley government believes a fresh investment in the Nordegg area could give Albertans another mountain getaway like Kananaskis Country. Tom Vernon explains.

Alberta proposes series of provincial parks near Nordegg
Alberta proposes series of provincial parks near Nordegg

Admissions fees worth it for visitors

David Van Heerden, his wife and daughter took their dog out for a walk at Elk Island National Park on Sunday. Van Heerden and his wife moved to Edmonton from South Africa in 2017.

“We enjoyed nature so I was prepared to pay [admission]. Fortunately for us, it was free… so we took advantage of it,” he said.

Van Heerden said he and his wife tried to visit as many parks as they could last year and would stop in at Elk Island National Park at least twice a month.

When admission was re-instated this year, Van Heerden did not think twice about buying a pass, saying his experience with the free admission in 2017 played a role.

“We enjoy nature. We think [Canada] is a beautiful country. We like the trails,” he said.
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“It’s really beautiful. I think everybody should take advantage of it.”

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Khalid Aljawamis of Edmonton said he did not mind paying for admission for himself and his wife on Sunday so the pair could make coffee over a fire and enjoy the view of Astotin Lake.

“It’s worth [it] of course. I’m a nature guy. I like nature, I love animals, and I love the scenery here. I love Elk Island very much,” he said.

Aljawamis said he used the free admission to national parks to the fullest last year, adding his visits to the parks increased from twice a year to four times a year.

“It was really nice. I went to Jasper. I think it encouraged people to go more to nature. Sometimes the fees impact your decision to go to national parks,” he said.

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Aljawamis said the frequency of his visits in 2018 is on par with the year prior. He hopes Parks Canada considers more free admission opportunities though he adds he will visit the parks regardless.

Bunko said Elk Island National Park will hold a free admission day on Dec. 22.