No matter the continent, the first and the most important role of a national park is to protect pristine nature and its inhabitants which results in different forms of limitations and controlled visits.
While North American national parks have attendance fees, European national parks have in general free access, but there are entrance fees for touristic sights, limited access and prohibition of an access for highly protected areas. With different strategies and operations national parks take care of natural and cultural heritage which is not just about access management and education, but also creating touristic products that have an important role to:
promote values of natural park, natural and cultural heritage of a protected area;
enhance visitors to experience the natural and cultural heritage with as less impact as possible.
National parks all over the world choose among different ways to manage visitors especially in high season (while low season is mostly too dangerous and without park service). I grouped ways of mass tourism management into two groups:
self-guided touristic products which are in Europe free of charge and in North America with a smaller fee. Those products demands highly developed and a lot of infrastructure and especially in a high season a non-stop supervising in the field.
guided touristic products which demand high rule respect by guides and organised local community that can serve trends of visitors on and off season. Usually there is less needs for accompanying infrastructure due to a focus on guided touristic products. Of course, social media and travel apps (hiking, biking) can have a negative impact with sharing gps tracks, photos and videos.
There are pros and cons of both ways of protected area management, but what I want to point out is that guided touristic products enhance better management of visitors and also more control of impact on nature (for sure also easier ways to analyse impact which is still focused more on qualitative than quantitative research in all national parks).
National parks in North America has quite a strict policy regarding mass tourism: limitations of visitors per day (which is manageable also with controlled road traffic) in park, camping sides, it is even more strict for the most popular sights. Anyway, most of the Europeans would say that still there is too much mass tourism in the national parks there (especially while there are guided tours for everything and European are not used to visit national park as guided tours – part of a different culture).
When analysing operations of other entities (no matter if we are talking about national parks or corporations), we too often make conclusions like “they can do that, but we can’t”. I rather prefer answering to a simple questions: what has a potential to work in our environment?
Especially in management of mass tourism in protected areas guided tours are quite a simple answer, but really complex operation to implement. For the most extreme sports that is not such a big issue, but what for the most common hikes? Is that even possible to charge fees? How can we distinguish between locals and tourists? Not a simple answer, but one is for sure: guided visits are a guarantee for better experience of visitors and their management. Of course that kind of rules bring on restrictions which can potentially lead to negative feedback, but I will conclude with a quote of Cairngorm National Park ranger: “Communication is a business function as accounting or legal department. If we don’t communicate in a way that our society will be informed, educated properly, than we can’t expect anything can change for good and in a good way. Rules and laws are there to manage our community that everybody has the most of their life, and are not there to charge fees!”