A new National Park Service report found that four New Jersey parks delivered a total benefit of more than $189 million to the state economy last year, but that's the lowest benefit in the past four years.
The number of visits to the state's national parks was also down -- from a high of 5 million in 2013 to 4.2 million last year, data from the NPS shows.
These national park declines, detailed in the service's annual report on the economic impact of the national parks that was released last month, were in contrast to overall tourism data for the state. Published in March, the state Division of Travel and Tourism's report showed a one-year increase of 3.3 percent, to $41.2 billion in direct tourism spending last year. The NPS report showed a 3.7 percent drop in the total economic output from the state's national parks from 2014 to 2015.
The study only looked at four parks -- Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Gateway National Recreation Area, Morristown National Historical Park, and Thomas Edison National Historical Park. New Jersey has several other national attractions that were not included: a portion of the Appalachian Trail, Ellis Island (part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument), the Lower Delaware National Wild and Scenic River, the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail Route, the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve and the Great Egg Harbor River within it, and part of the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail.
The NPS report showed that the 4.2 million visitors to the Jersey national parks spent $135.8 million in the state in 2015, about $5 million less than in 2014. That spending resulted in 2,039 jobs and with $75.5 million in labor income.
“The national parks of New Jersey attract visitors from across the country and around the world,” said National Park Service Northeast Regional Director Mike Caldwell. “Whether they are out for an afternoon, a school field trip, or a month-long family vacation, visitors come to have a great experience, and end up spending a little money along the way. This new report shows that national park tourism is a significant driver in the national economy -- returning $10 for every $1 invested in the National Park Service -- and a big factor in our state’s economy as well, a result.”
There was no explanation for the drop in visits and spending at the state's national parks. A NPS spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.
New Jersey's parks bucked the national trend, in which visits and spending were up. Tourists spent $1.2 billion more last year than in 2014, for a total of $16.9 billion in communities within 60 miles of a national park. The national visitation total set a new record in 2015 with 307.2 million recreation visits, compared to the previous record of 292.8 million in 2014. In 2015, 57 parks set a new record for annual recreation visits. Eleven parks including Grand Canyon National Park had more than 5 million recreation visits in 2015. The most popular Jersey park, Gateway National Recreation Area, was one of those, with 6.4 million visitors last year, 200,000 more than the prior year. But the NPS report shows just 20 percent of those visitors go to the Jersey section; the rest is in New York.
According to the, most park-visitor spending was for lodging -- 31.1 percent -- followed by food and beverages, gas and oil, admissions and fees and souvenirs and other expenses made up the smallest portion, 9.8 percent
Only two of the four parks are totally in New Jersey. Thomas Edison National Historic Park logged more than 56,000 visits last year, an increase of almost 10,000 from 2014. Morristown National Historic Park, which includes several sites in Morris and Somerset counties, saw nearly 219,000. “Morristown National Historical Park welcomes visitors from across the country and around the world,” said Superintendent Thomas Ross, adding the park is " glad to be able to give back by helping to sustain local communities.”