FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Stop at a cafe in the remote stretches of northern Arizona and southern Utah in the fall, and you’re likely to hear a mix of languages as tourists from around the world step into the iconic western landscape, marked by breathtaking canyons and massive rock formations.
Millions of visitors tour the region each year for what can be once-in-a-lifetime vacations.
Those visitors didn’t stop with the government shutdown, which forced officials to close down roads, campgrounds and tourist centers at national parks dotting the landscape.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has offered to use state money to keep the Grand Canyon open, and several businesses made similar pledges — all of which have been politely rejected by the national park.
The impact isn’t just ruining vacations. It also has brought local economies to a near standstill.
Outside Yellowstone’s north entrance, two men on a bus with Indian and Chinese passengers frown and give the thumbs down sign after seeing the park is shut down. A family of Japanese tourists leaves the Grand Canyon in tears. An English couple and a Belgium couple touring national parks out West settles for a drive around Yosemite without being able to put their feet on the ground.
“Looks as though both sides are having a bit of a childish tantrum,” says Englishman Neil Stanton.
Songyi Cho, on a separate trip to Yosemite, says: “This is crazy. How can a whole government shut down?”
While some international tourists kept tabs on American politics in the days before they ventured to national parks, others were blindsided.
Alan Platt and his wife, Leana, first heard about a possible shutdown while at the Grand Canyon on Monday. Platt guessed that lawmakers would be pushed to the brink but pass a budget by the deadline. He was wrong, and the couple was forced to cut their three-day Grand Canyon stay short.
“For the rest of the world, we’re concerned about the fact you have partisan positioning going on,” he says. “No matter who’s in power, there’s a national pride in engagement we saw. Suddenly, we see a great divide.”
ICONS FROM A DISTANCE
Some of the country’s most recognizable icons can be viewed from a distance — the full faces of Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower, the granite formations in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier. No one needs to tell tourists that it’s not the same as camping on the beaches of the Grand Canyon off the Colorado River, walking the slot canyons at Zion or watching water spew at Old Faithful in Yellowstone.
“There’s no question it’s disappointing,” says Bruce Brossman of the Grand Canyon Railway, which has furloughed conductors and engineers who run trains into the canyon. “You can get a sneak peak and maybe get inspired to come back.”
Returning to the national parks might be easier said than done, particularly for international tourists who often plan expensive and lengthy vacations.
Jock Holland, of Melbourne, Australia, is among those forced to make alternate plans. He was heading to Grand Teton from Yellowstone when he was stopped by the park closure. He planned to chart a new course after grabbing a bite to eat in Jackson, Wyo.
The Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau outside the national park helped Stanton and his wife, Clare, set up horseback rides and hikes outside. He says Yosemite has “been somewhat on our bucket list for years, and you get here and you can’t get to it. A bit frustrating but we still made the most of it.”
Julie Jaeger and her friend are leaving California on Friday for what would have been a trip to Zion, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, Canyonlands and Mesa Verde national parks. They’ve renamed their vacation the “magical mystery tour,” as they search for state parks and interesting towns to visit along the way. They still hope the federal government resumes operations and they can salvage part of their original itinerary.
BUSINESSES TAKE HIT
Rafting outfitters, fishing guides, Jeep companies, hotels and restaurants are hurting without the 715,000 people who spend about $76 million a day visiting the national park system.
About 90 percent of the business at Phoenix-based Across Arizona Tours is for the Grand Canyon, says company co-founder Leonardo Gem.
“It’s like closing Macy’s the day after Thanksgiving,” he says.
At Lees Ferry Anglers, which runs fishing trips in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in northern Arizona, employees are busy calling customers to cancel trips scheduled this week.
“It is devastating,” says employee Kaila Bruner. “You can’t really function normally. We just have to depend on the lodging and the through traffic to stay open.”
Greg Bryan, mayor of the tiny town of Tusayan outside the Grand Canyon entrance, manages a hotel in town and says he is downsizing staff as fewer and fewer people come through. The town should be bustling with tourists sharing pictures of sunsets over the South Rim, of mule rides down the park’s trails and massive expanses of geology.
It looks more like a ghost town these days.