By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
The visitors are still coming to northwestern Wyoming, but at a slower pace than in previous years.
That’s the message delivered by tourism industry members in a call with the Wyoming Office of Tourism on Tuesday morning.
“It feels kind of soft, but I’m comparing that to last year, which was just kind of rocking,” said Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, said during an industry conference call with the Office of Tourism. “I think that we’re in pretty good shape, but the challenge, as I’ve talked to retailers and hoteliers, is we’re kind of still in that May mode of having a really, really good day and then we have a not-so-good day. But all in all, it’s evening out pretty well.”
Since the flooding that forced Yellowstone National Park’s closure and evacuation in early June, the number of tourists visiting the region has slowed from 2021’s record-setting pace, but is not completely out of step from previous years.
Economic Impact Varies
The economic impact of the one-week closure of Yellowstone varies, depending on who is doing the measuring.
“The tax collections just came out for the month of June, which would have ended the fiscal year (2022),” said Diane Shober, director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism “The taxes that are contributed from the 3% statewide lodging tax were almost even with the June of ‘21. So June of ‘22 was almost right on par with ‘21.
“And that really was with about seven days out of commission for everything around Yellowstone,” she added.
For some small businesses near Yellowstone, however, the closure prompted a cascade of cancellations that cost hoteliers and other tourism-dependent operations tens of thousands of dollars.
“Gateway community businesses, especially ones that are literally right outside the park – go there and talk to business owners,” said Rob Coe, who with his father, Bob, owns Pahaska Tepee Resort near Yellowstone’s east entrance. “I’m sure they’re feeling it big time.”
Pahaska Teepee had to close for several days during the flooding due to rising water and had to field cancellation calls from hundreds of potential customers.
“From some locations around the state, we have heard that things have been a little bit soft,” said Chris Brown with the Wyoming Restaurant and Lodging Association. “I think with the return of tour buses and with more messaging that Wyoming is open, things are starting to pick up some.”
Educating visitors did help ease the blow in the first few days after the disaster, said Gail Nace, who owns the Silver Dollar Bar in Cody.
“The first couple of days it was really tricky to try and educate the people that there are other things to do,” Nace told Cowboy State Daily. “But once they had a chance to get their heads wrapped around that their vacation had changed, then they became very open and flexible to other alternatives as far as how they can pass their time in our beautiful area.”
Inside The Parks
Mike Keller, general manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, said now that 93% of the park’s roads are open and visitors can access both its northern and southern loops, it’s business as usual — for the most part.
“Inside the park itself, when you get on the lower loop, it feels like a normal summer day for us,” Keller said. “We are still soft, though, in occupancy, and it’s been something that we’ve been working very hard to get the message out to everybody – that Yellowstone is open, you can still come in, and the wildlife is abundant. The hiking is still great in the park.”
“For the most part, we’ve seen the bus tours return to normal levels,” said Alex Klein, vice president and general manager for the Grand Teton Lodge Company. “We haven’t seen any official reports, but we do expect June to be a little bit closer to 2019 numbers, candidly, and I think the park experience is generally a good one.”
Klein pointed out that there is a sense that fewer people are in Grand Teton right now than there were last year at this same time.
“You know, the trails aren’t quite as busy as they have been,” he said. “(But) the guests that are coming to the parks are really having a great experience.”
Disaster Assistance Available For Some
For those whose businesses were affected by the park’s closure, however, there’s no financial assistance available as of yet.
Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) will soon be available in several Montana counties that were affected by flooding in the days following the June 13 flood. Disaster Recovery Centers and Mobile Registration Intake Centers have opened across Carbon, Park, and Stillwater counties in Montana to help homeowners, renters, and business owners who were affected by the severe flooding.
In Wyoming, though, there is no such assistance available, according to Brown.
“We don’t currently have a plan to ask the state for assistance,” Brown told Cowboy State Daily. “But you know, we’ll have to see how things shake out over the next couple of weeks and through the rest of the summer.”
Spreading The Message
Wyoming Office of Tourism officials explained that the office is ramping up advertising and promotion in both domestic and global markets to offset the messages that came out in the days after the Yellowstone flood.
“(It’s important) for us as an industry to stand together and with a message that Wyoming is open,” said Brown. “That all of the Wyoming entrances to Yellowstone are open, and that more than 90% of Yellowstone is accessible.”