By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily publisher
With energy and ag experiencing tough times, this was the year that tourism was going to help the Wyoming economy soar.
And then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the first time in our lifetimes, the whole world shut down.
Wyoming is a destination reached mainly by auto and camper. With national gasoline prices hitting historic lows, it could have been assumed that we would get far more than our usual 9 million visitors and maybe even set new tourism records.
Tourism is a powerful force. People today feel their vacation trips are an entitlement. And Wyoming is a place they want to go.
Drawn by our national parks, forests and monuments, Oregon Trail, fantastic state parks, mountain ranges and lakes, luxurious private tourism destinations, and local areas promoted by 20+ lodging tax boards – well, it’s a steady stream of tourists launched in early spring that doesn’t tail off until the snows of November. The industry employs 33,000 people and generates almost $4 billion annually.
Wyoming was pretty much shut down in late March and here we are, two months later, tentatively starting to open up.
For the first time in perhaps decades, the Wyoming Office of Tourism launched a $140,000 “in-state” tourism campaign. (Note: That TV ad can be found on Cowboy State Daily web site.)
Diane Shober, state tourism director, encouraged a cautious start with lots of emphasis on social distancing, face masks, and lots of sanitizer.
Leslie Jefferson of Carbon County Visitor Council said their museums are open and they are starting their annual promotions.
“Our county is so big and so full of amazing sites and sights that people can easily come here and still practice safe distancing,” she said. “Both of our wonderful scenic mountain roads, Battle Mountain and Snowy Range, are now open.”
She called the current situation “an interesting animal at this point.”
Sandy Hoehn in Torrington said their tourism situation is improving and their motels “are filling up.”
Shawn Parker in Sheridan Travel and Tourism said: “We are cautiously optimistic that Wyoming, as a premier road trip market, will be at the forefront of the travel industry rebound. Demand continues to increase in the Sheridan County market.”
Local tourism professionals like Paula McCormick of the Wind River Visitors Council felt it was an uneasy balancing act between encouraging tourists to come to Fremont County and while making sure local health was not threatened by thousands of newcomers. She said it has been disappointing to see all the events that have been canceled in April, May, and now in June and July.
I founded the Wind River Visitors Council 30 years ago and was its president for its first three years. I know something about tourism. But I have never had to be involved in the decisions she and her board have to make.
All 23 counties have tourism boards and all are taking baby steps. Some officials are a little more aggressive and some, like Paula, are probably a little more cautious. That darned virus looms large in their decisions. But once you throw that gate open, it is almost impossible to close it back up.
There is an enormous pent-up demand across the country to get out of the house and go someplace. And Wyoming, with its wondrous wide-open spaces and relatively low impact from the coronavirus, will look especially enticing to tourists from coast to coast.
“As far as caution, I think we are doing a great balancing act that is supporting our tourism businesses to get back into business, while assuring our residents as the state and national lands open up in Wyoming,” McCormick said. “I don’t think of it as being cautious, because, no matter what we do, now that the Governor and some of the public lands have relaxed their restrictions. It also helps that the weather is working in our favor, after people have been cooped up. Like the Governor said, a lot of the responsibility is in the hands of the visitors, who need to Travel Responsibly. So that’s why we’ve created our Meme campaign to educate those visitors who will come from in-state and out-of-state about safety protocol.”
Paula summarized her thoughts with: “The tourism industry, while the second largest in Wyoming, is made of smiles of people on vacation, happy in Wyoming’s open spaces and western life. Yes, there are millions of visitors, but as long as you aren’t standing at Old Faithful in the middle of summer, we can spread them out pretty well. Especially we can spread them out in Wind River Country. It’s a healthy industry, and we are trying to make people have their dream vacation while we keep them and us healthy.
“So, the balancing act is assuring our residents and visitors that we can be both safe and have a tourism economy, although it looks a little different than previously,” she concluded.