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Tourism to Big Bend National Park slowed in 2022, new numbers show

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(Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio)
A view from the Chisos Mountains at Big Bend in April 2022.

Preliminary data from the National Park Service show Big Bend National Park saw an 11% drop in visitors last year, a slowdown from a record-high year in 2021.

The number of people making the trek to Big Bend National Park slowed in 2022 after hitting an all-time high in 2021, new data from the National Park Service show.

According to preliminary year-end numbers, more than 516,000 people visited the Far West Texas park in 2022, down from 2021’s record high of more than 581,000.

Big Bend Superintendent Bob Krumenaker, who announced Tuesday he would be retiring in the summer, said the numbers don’t necessarily suggest the start of a downward trend. The peak in 2021 now appears to have been an anomaly, he said, fueled by the post-pandemic lockdown surge in national park visitors that was seen across the U.S.

“I do think the numbers are going to continue to go up,” Krumenaker said. “Terlingua keeps growing, there are more and more AirBNBs, the marketing for the park is huge, so it’s hard for me to imagine that we’re going to be stable.”

Krumenaker said he believes the park will continue to see at least 500,000 annual visitors in the years ahead.

Still, in a tourism-dependent economy like the Big Bend, even a slowdown can hurt.

Jim Street, member of the Alpine Business Alliance and former president of the non-profit group, said the city, a frequent stop for travelers headed to Big Bend, has lost multiple businesses in the past year or so as inflation has changed people’s spending habits nationwide.

“People aren’t traveling as much as they were before,” he said. “Meals are up, gas is up. I think it’s part of the whole national trend.”

Even with the lower tourism numbers, the Big Bend region has continued to see a growth in new AirBNBs and other short-term rentals coming on the market.

“Every city council meeting, it seems, has several applications for a new BNB, so yea, that is a growing industry,” Street said.

Krumenaker acknowledged that the region’s tourism boom of recent years has come with both positive and negative impacts.

“Obviously the economic impact of tourists is very good for this community, it creates jobs and there’s a vibrancy in the hospitality sector here,” he said. “But those are also low-paying jobs, and housing is getting tighter, and housing prices are getting higher. It’s a two-edged sword for sure.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.