By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
As restrictions imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus begin to relax, changes are being seen across the country.
People can travel. Choirs can sing. Tour buses can take full loads of visitors to places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park.
But experts in the state’s hospitality industry are noticing a difference in who is traveling this year — they are all Americans.
Hospitality ventures in Wyoming such as hotels and restaurants have always expected a portion of their summer business to come from international tourists.
But not this year.
“You know, two years ago, before the whole COVID thing started happening, we were seeing right at 1 million internationals — Asian communities specifically — coming to Yellowstone and the Grand Teton area,” says Justin Walters at the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce.
Tourists from Asian countries make up a large portion of the international presence in the communities surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. A report compiled by the National Park Service in 2016 showed that international visitors that year were from 25 countries and comprised 17% of total visitation to the park, estimated at 4.25 million.
European visitors accounted for 49% of the international traffic, 34% came from China and 10% came from Canada.
So the absence of those international visitors is felt, especially by small businesses who have come to rely on tour buses filled with foreign travelers.
China Town Buffet in Cody is one of the businesses that are magnets for the Asian tour buses, with the majority of those buses carrying Chinese citizens. In a post-COVID world, those buses are not in the picture this year, according to Shu Fang, a spokeswoman for the restaurant.
“Every day, I would have buses, sometimes I have three buses, sometimes four buses a day,” she said. Usually, Shu said, buses start arriving in May and go through September.
But not this year.
That doesn’t mean that China Town is deserted, by any means, she added.
“I mean like, we still operate the business,” she said. “We have tourists from our country, traveling, but we just don’t have Chinese buses. And so we’re really making less money.”
However, according to Rick Hoeninghausen with Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which operates the lodging and restaurant properties in Yellowstone, Americans this summer are more than making up for the lack of international visitors.
“Domestic demand has increased because of circumstances and from where I sit, demand for trips to Yellowstone is as high as ever,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say, (American travelers have) offset any international demand that’s not there now.”
And Walters pointed out the lack of international tourists is in some ways a blessing, given the labor shortage affecting Jackson and other tourism communities.
“We just went through a big email chain of how stressed the community already is worker-wise,” he said. “I mean, no one’s willing to work, we do not have housing for the workers, and restaurants, hotels, all these businesses are very, very much overrun with tourism already. I’m not saying we don’t want it, but the thing is, there’s got to be that balance.”
Walters said lodging properties in the area are already booked for the entire summer. And he added that a shortage of rental cars has visitors driving all the way to Salt Lake City to meet their transportation needs.
“Even our outlier communities are getting pressure – campgrounds within 80 miles of us are full that really never had filled before,” he explains.
In a community expecting close to 5 million visitors — without Asian and other international tourists — Walters said this tourist season could put a strain on the hospitality industry.
“I would be scared to death to see what would happen if you add another million on top of what’s already coming,” he said.