Closing National Parks = closing rural towns: The entry road into Bryce Canyon National Park are blocked by Park Rangers on October 2, 2013.

Closing National Parks = closing rural towns: The entry road into Bryce Canyon National Park are blocked by Park Rangers on October 2.

The US government has now been (partially) shut down for more than a week. Most people in the US seem unaffected: only those unfortunate to have scheduled a vacation to one of the national parks would feel its immediate consequences as all National Parks and Monuments have closed. And of course the tourists, like me and my wife, who travelled far distances to see some of the world’s most amazing natural wonders. (We missed Bryce Canyon, but did manage to sneak into Grand Canyon for a brief but worthwhile view of the magnificent panorama.)

Yet many Americans are struggling. More than 800 000 employees are on furlough, meaning they have to stay at home unsure of whether they will be paid. (When Congress eventually does sign the budget, they will probably receive back-payments.) But this official number of government employees doesn’t include the thousands of owners and employees of private hotels, motels, restaurants, shops, vendors and tour operators relying on a steady supply of visitors to National Parks. Take, for example, Moab, a small, touristy town close to Arches National Park.
We were there on October 1st, the day the park closed its roads. When we checked out, the receptionist at the motel we stayed in had already fielded several calls that morning cancelling future reservations. But she didn’t expect it to affect business in the short-run. “As long as the shutdown is over quickly”, she told us. It’s been a week. I suspect Moab is now little more than a ghost town.

So, too, Panguitch, a cowboy town on the border of Bryce Canyon National Park. Nearly entirely depended on tourists, restaurants and souvenir shops in Panguitch probably benefited in the intermediate aftermath of the shutdown as many visitors that would have spent an afternoon in the canyon decided to rather drink away their bad luck. Or they visited the other attractions in the region, like the Red Canyon State Park or privately-owned Bryce Canyon Animal Sanctuary. But by now, Panguitch would have run empty, it’s motels and bars and souvenir shops deserted. And those motel owners, and receptionists, and cleaners, and waitresses and shopkeepers won’t get back-payment. In fact, even if an agreement is signed tomorrow, they will have to wait for several weeks for a return to business-as-usual.

We next arrived in Tusayan on the border of the Grand Canyon National Park. Even though it was less than 48 hours after the shutdown, the town was already quiet. Our hotel was emptying (we also decided to cut our stay from a planned two to one night). The massive IMAX cinema (which could probably fit 500 people) screened the National Geographic film for a handful of tourists. A line of pink Jeeps that usually provide guided tours in the park, stood neglected in an empty car park, its employees probably sent home on unpaid leave.

The US shutdown may not be that expensive in terms of its impact on GDP (The Economist predicts a 0.1 to 0.2% fall in the final quarter). And it’s true that a failure to raise the debt ceiling by October 17 would have far more severe consequences for the US (and world) economy. But for the residents of Moab, Panguitch, Tusayan, those that are at the lower end of the income distribution with few alternative job opportunities outside the tourism industry, the shutdown and its consequences is as real as it gets.