Back in February I posted on LCD Soundsystem’s battle with scalpers over the band’s last show at Madison Square Garden. Now another ticket seller is battling those reselling its offerings, the National Park Service at Yosemite.
In a nutshell, the Park Service created scarcity by limiting the number of permits available for hiking up Half Dome but then has kept the price very low — so low that entrepreneurs can step in to profitably resell the permits. NPR reports that the park faces similar issues with its camp sites (Yosemite Cracks Down On Campsite Scalpers, Jul 7). $20 permits are trading at $60.
There are several interesting aspects of this. First, this is a problem created by technology. The Park Service makes Half Dome and campsite permits over the web at predictable times and the thought is that scalpers have automated snagging permits. Real park visitors — i.e., humans — are then left out in the cold. If the permit issuing process were more low tech, it would be much harder to scam the system. For example, check out the form you have to fill out for a permit to camp below the rim of the Grand Canyon. It even has a section that is explicitly labeled “enter by hand, not with the computer.”
Second, as I have noted before, many models exist that purport to show that scalpers can perform a valuable social service. Those models not surprisingly start with a profit maximizing seller. That presumably is not the behavior we expect from the Park Service. The Park Service has an interest in making the park available to as many visitors as possible. Limitations based on how many can be safely accommodated are reasonable but presumably should not be tied to ability to pay. To the extent that it is a tax-payer supported venture, all Americans should have a shot at visiting Yosemite for only modest charges.
That seems to leave the Park Service between a rock and a hard place. They have created scarcity but cannot price to clear the market. So what are the options?
One would be to up transaction costs for scalpers. NPR reports that the Park Service is working with Craig’s List to take down listings for Yosemite campsites. Further, they are starting to check IDs at the campsites to make sure those names match those on the permit.
As for Half Dome, the Yosemite website now has the following posted:
Updated July 14, 2011
Initial hiker counts for this season indicate that there are numerous no shows among Half Dome permit holders. In an effort to make up for these no shows, the National Park Service (NPS) will manually release additional Half Dome permits each day, at 7 am PDT on the day before the permit date. …
Unlike the earlier Half Dome permits, these are non transferable. To counter the illegal resale of Half Dome permits, the group leader, whose name is recorded at the time of transaction, must accompany his or her group on their Half Dome hike. Once the permit transaction is completed, the group leader’s name cannot be changed.
So the risk of spending money for a permit you cannot use may dissuade some from transacting with scalpers, but I am not sure it will really work. Specifically does the Park Service really want to enforce this? Put yourself in the shoes of the ranger who cards a family with three kids at a campsite and finds that they purchased their permit from a scalper. Are you really going to turn out the family? Not only do you ruin things for them, the site will be idle for the night. That’s inefficient along two dimensions and I have to think a lot of rangers are inclined to just look the other way.