5-Year Texas State Parks Study Reveals Interesting User Insights

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AUSTIN — The typical visitor to a Texas state park is a middle-aged white non-Hispanic from out of town traveling with a spouse or other family member, but no children, to camp, hike, relax or just enjoy the scenery. Those are just some of the results from a comprehensive statewide visitor survey conducted between 2002 and 2007 at 70 state parks, and whose results were recently compiled and analyzed by Sam Houston University.

The visitor survey of 27,000 customers showed, too, that the vast majority of state park visitors are satisfied with their park experience and that Texas state parks are a major tourism draw to the local area. Two-thirds of the park visitors surveyed report coming to the area for the primary purpose of visiting the park and one-third also said they visit other attractions in the local area and stay overnight in local area accommodations other than the park.

These findings are consistent with earlier Texas A&M University research that proved state parks draw tourist dollars from outside their host counties. The 2005 university report focused on 80 state parks studied in the project. Statewide, these 80 parks generated an estimated total of $793 million in retail sales, had a $456 million impact on residents’ income and created roughly 11,928 jobs.

The visitor survey responses were broken down by overnight and day visitors, as well as by first time and repeat visitors. Respondents were asked such questions as what was their primary reason for visiting a state park, what activities they participated in and what park improvements they would most like to see.

Predictably, overnight visitors came primarily to camp out (22%), relax/get away/vacation (14%) and sightsee (8%). Fifteen percent of the day visitors came to sightsee and enjoy the scenery and 13 percent to hike the park trails.

The vast majority (94%) were satisfied with their visit to a state park, with 65% saying they were "very satisfied" and 29% "satisfied." Satisfaction was shown to have significant implications for future visitation as satisfied visitors were more likely to return to the park than those less satisfied or dissatisfied. Survey results reveal that 92% of "very satisfied" visitors were likely to return to visit the park compared to 80% of satisfied visitors and only 43% of "somewhat satisfied" or "dissatisfied" visitors.

Visitors were asked about their participation in recreation activities and what amenities they used while visiting the park. Hiking was the top activity participated in by both day an overnight visitors, and similarly, hiking trails were shown to be the top amenity used by visitors. Interpretive programs ranked high with both overnight (11%) and day users (12%) as an improvement they would most like to see at state parks. Garnering a high response among overnight users was the desire to see more campsite improvements, while 11 percent of the day users cited the need for more trails, signage and maps. Both overnight and day users indicated they wanted to see more at state parks. Both groups also indicated they wanted to see more improvements in restrooms and showers. Lack of upkeep of such facilities perennially ranks as the top reason for dissatisfaction with Texas state parks.

As part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s ongoing "Getting Better All The Time" initiative, projects are under way to upgrade campsites, improve restrooms, improve existing and develop new trails and enhance interpretive programming, as a result of increased financial support in the past two legislative sessions.

Research indicated that only 11 percent of state park visitors are Hispanic, although Hispanics make up 37 percent of the Texas population, and this population will be the majority demographic group by 2030. With the exception of a handful of parks, park visitation by Hispanics is very low. TPWD recently worked with a San Antonio public relations firm to conduct focus groups with Hispanics to better gauge their awareness of and attitudes toward Texas state parks, as well their barriers and their interests related to visiting state parks. Planning has begun to develop strategies to more effectively communicate and meet the needs of this demographic group.

Another finding of significant concern to Texas Parks and Wildlife is the fact that only one-third of state park visitors came with children; even during the summer season only 43 percent of visitors were families with children.

"This does not bode well for the future of conservation in Texas" said Walt Dabney, Texas state parks director. "If children aren’t exposed to nature at an early age, they are unlikely to participate in nature-based activities as adults or become stewards of these natural places. State parks offer a safe and accessible way for today’s urban youth to experience the natural world and we must do all we can to let Texas parents know that these are their public places to enjoy."

In recent years, TPWD has launched several initiatives, including the Texas Outdoor Family program, the Texas Geocaching Challenge and Free Fishing in State Parks to attract more families and others to Texas state parks. Other steps are being taken, as well, to enhance the visibility of state parks and promote increased visitation.

A new Texas state park Web site will launch in March, with videos of the parks, virtual tours for many of the parks and their facilities and Twitter updates and a Facebook fan page. The Web site, http://www.texasstateparks.org/, will provide current and potential park visitors with useful information, including easy to use Google mapping, to help them research and plan a day trip, a weekend getaway or a vacation to a state park.