By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily
One might think the closure of an area’s only airport would be of some concern to a major U.S. tourist destination.
Not so in Jackson.
Jackson Hole Airport closed down for repairs on April 11 and won’t be reopening until June 27. While the temporary halt to air traffic is a big deal, business owners are taking it in stride.
Anna Olson, the director of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, said April is the slowest month of the year for Jackson tourism, so the closure was scheduled at the right time.
And although visitor interest usually picks up in May, it is still consider shoulder season.
June is another story, Olson said. But most tourists who visit the Jackson area in the summer come by car, not plane.
“We are, by far, a drive market in the summer,” Olson said. “Ninety percent of visitors arrive in a vehicle as opposed to a plane in the summer.”
She added there appeared to be a lag in hotel bookings for the month of June, but it is not concerning because of the way hotels in Jackson control their inventory of available rooms.
If the lag continues — which Olson does not expect — hotels can drop their rates, she said, which will likely lead to increased occupancy.
“It’s a pretty sophisticated system,” she said. “We know that the visitor demand is there and while the early booking pattern is slower than last year, there is a general consensus that people will be here.”
Shoulder season is covering less time in Jackson than it used to, Olson said. While April, May, October, and November used to be considered the shoulder seasons, there has been an uptick in visits recently in the second half of May and the first half of October.
Now the shoulder season covers six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall, she said.
“The Great American Drive”
Jason Williams, a Jackson businessman who owned a guide service for 15 years and owns an art gallery now, said COVID was responsible for a shift in travelers’ thinking. It’s more of a driving culture now, he said
“People’s mentality shifted to the great American road trip,” Williams said. “And there’s still a lot of forward momentum there with people taking these extended trips by car or R.V.”
He, like Olson, believes the airport’s closure was scheduled for the right time and he credited the director of the Jackson Hole Airport Authority for the good timing.
“The leadership of the airport, under Jim Elwood, is the reason for this,” Williams said. “He was extremely involved with our community and really looked closely on how to mitigate the impacts.”
“The timing of the project was carefully chosen to have the least amount of impact,” he said.
Williams said his art gallery, Gallery Wild, is having a strong April so far. It is more difficult, he said, to predict the future with the art gallery business than with his former guide service.
“I had a better indication of future bookings with the safari business,” he said. “But all indications seem like we’re on track to have a good season.”
Drive vs Fly
Olson did caution that making any predictions for the season based solely on hotel bookings comes with a degree of peril. That’s because air travelers make their reservations much further in advance than drivers.
“Drivers may make their reservations a week or two out, where those traveling by air generally lock in 60 to 90 days out,” she said.
Olson said hotel bookings for the month of May are down about 11%.
Those wishing to travel by air do have other airport options, although it takes some time to drive from the closest alternative airports.
Beginning on May 5, Cody’s airport will be open and, with good traffic, can be a 2.5-hour drive.
Idaho Falls Regional airport is about a two hour drive from Jackson.
The largest airport near Jackson is Salt Lake City International, which is a 4.5-hour drive.