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October 17, 2013

Yosemite National Park reopens to visitors

Marc Sels and wife Linda had been planning for a year to visit the United States, including a stop at Yosemite National Park, and they were afraid the government shutdown was going to ruin it.

Marc Sels and wife Linda had been planning for a year to visit the United States, including a stop at Yosemite National Park, and they were afraid the government shutdown was going to ruin it.

“It was a pity,” he said, adding the family from Belgium was closed out of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Arches National Park in Utah and others. “We saved a lot of money for it (the trip).”

The Selses planned a monthlong trip that traversed the country and several national parks. The trip was a gift from Marc’s parents. It was a way for the couple to celebrate their 50th anniversary and his 50th birthday on Sunday.

They were just some of the tourists visiting Yosemite on Thursday, the day after Congress ended a the 2-week-old partial government shutdown that closed Yosemite and other national parks. Park officials announced late Wednesday that Yosemite is open for business.

Sels said he was upset to have his vacation plans shaken up, but “it was more upsetting for the people who don’t get paid,” referring to federal workers.

Linda Sels, 53, said the family was relieved to get to the park gates and see them open. Their plan was to head next to Sequoia National Park, which also opened Thursday.

Also in the park were Jim and Donna Burke of Cleveland, who said they were happy to hear the park would be open. They had just flown in for an extended vacation.

“We thought maybe, by the 17th, it would be open,” Donna Burke, 70, said. “It’s been on our bucket list for years to come here.”

The Burkes said they never really considered canceling, and crossed their fingers in the hope that there would be a resolution to the shutdown before their trip. Jim Burke, 74, said it would have been a big disappointment to cancel.

According to park officials, major highways and roads leading into and through Yosemite, including the Glacier Point and Mariposa Grove roads, are now open to vehicles. Park visitor centers and campgrounds also reopened, and ranger-led programs resumed Thursday.

“We are excited to reopen and welcome visitors back to Yosemite,” park Superintendent Don Neubacher said in a news release. “Autumn is a particularly special season to enjoy Yosemite’s colorful grandeur.”

Glenn Gibbons, who helps operate a tollbooth at the Highway 140 entrance to the park, worked through the shutdown without pay. He said he was glad the park was back to full service again, as he accepted the tolls from drivers.

More than 3 million people visit Yosemite in a year, and many pass through Mariposa on their way up Highway 140. The town of less than 2,000 was hurting without sightseers.

Mariposa County received about $11.4 million in transient-tax revenues, mostly generated by tourism, each of the past two years. It accounts for more than 40 percent of the county’s general fund.

River Rock Inn and Deli Garden Cafe owner Vickie Lorenzi estimated she lost $18,000 during the two weeks of guest cancellations and early departures while the park was closed. The seven-room inn has been “deadsville,” she said.

“I have two tour groups from Australia that come every month,” she said. “They didn’t come this year, so that was a lot of money out of my pocket.”

“It was embarrassing as Americans to say, ‘Oh, sorry, our parks are closed,’” Lorenzi said.

Things did improve slightly Thursday when the park reopened, Lorenzi said. But tourism tends to die down in late October, she said, so Mariposa businesses missed the prime time for October dollars.

Also on Highway 140 is The Company Store Gift Shoppe. Scott Nady, whose parents have owned the store for 14 years, said the first week Yosemite was closed was manageable because tourists were still showing up, unaware of the closure. The second week, however, slumped.

“We saw quite a steady drop in business,” Nady said, adding profits were likely cut in half.

Thursday wasn’t much better, he said, as most tourists were reluctant to head up the highway.

“They said, ‘We heard it’s open, but we don’t want to go up there and have it partly open or half open,’” he said.

Nady said he’s optimistic that tourism will pick up as people start to hear Yosemite is back in business. Mariposa also has a car show and race planned this weekend. He thought that might help draw a crowd.

Harsha Joshi, who works the front desk at The Monarch hotel, said visitors started to trickle in Thursday but business was still slow. She said she hoped things would improve as word gets around that Yosemite is open.

“They are here for the park,” she said, “because in Mariposa (there are) no other things to do.”

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