Free pass means more visitors, fewer vacancies at Sask. national parks

Free entry to Saskatchewan’s national parks could come with a price for those who don’t book early, with an influx of visitors snapping up accommodation.

National park passes are free this year as part of Canada's 150th anniversary celebrations

Entry to Grasslands National Park is always free but this year's free national parks pass promotion is giving it more exposure. (Joanne Larson)

Free entry to Saskatchewan's national parks could come with a price for those who don't book early, with an influx of visitors snapping up accommodation.

Parks Canada is giving away free passes to all national parks as part of its celebration of the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

Although there are still some vacancies, tourism workers say the allure of a free pass is bringing more visitors to the parks, and accommodation is selling out fast.

Phones ringing off the hook

Waskesiu Lake Lodge executive assistant Aaron Isbister said the phone at her business has not stopped ringing since people started booking late last year.

She directly attributes the increase to the free park passes, adding that travellers had been mentioning it when they booked over the phone.

"I remind them on the phone, 'Don't forget to get your free park pass this year for admission to the gate, this year is free,'" she said.

"And they're like, 'Oh, we've got it, we've got it, we got it in January, we got it in February.'

"They're quite excited."

Sage grouse are among the wildlife at the Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. (Jerret Raffety/Rawlins Daily Times/The Associated Press)

Both the Prince Albert and Grasslands National Parks are already seeing an increase in visitors and bookings for accommodation.

Although the Grasslands National Park does not charge for entry in a normal year, communications officer Danielle Grant said the hype surrounding the free passes was attracting more interest.

She said that was partly because of the exposure the park was receiving as a "hidden gem."

"For people who are wanting to escape the large parks, who are expecting millions of people this summer, Grasslands National Park is a great place to come for that little bit of extra elbow room," said Grant.

She said she knew of two local accommodation providers who were already booked for the summer, something Grant said was unusual for mid-May.

More visitors to Prince Albert National Park 

Shannon Bond, the Prince Albert National Park communications officer, said she expected the number of visitors to the park to increase by up to 20 per cent in 2017.

"We think those free passes are certainly giving people the opportunity to come up and visit the park a little more often," she said.

"Or maybe some people who wouldn't have come before are now coming."

Bond said the number of visitors to the park was already higher than it was the same time last year.

The park has been receiving queries from international visitors from the U.S., U.K. and Japan.