By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
The tourism industry received some welcome news Thursday from Yellowstone National Park as officials announced the lifting of some restrictions on tour bus passenger numbers.
Park officials announced that there will be no restrictions on group sizes for tour buses whose passengers have either been vaccinated or tested for coronavirus immediately before their trip.
An email to industry partners sent by the park’s Concession Management office also said restrictions will be lifted in the case of bus passengers who have recovered from COVID-19 within three months of tour departure.
For operators who aren’t able to attest to having all passengers vaccinated or otherwise safe from COVID-19, passenger numbers will be limited to 10 people or 50% of vehicle capacity, whichever is greater.
Elaine Dejong, a group tour planner for Allied Tour and Travel in Iowa, said her company is relieved and happy to be able to resume touring in Wyoming’s national parks.
“The past year (plus) has been difficult on travelers, especially our senior and adult clientele,” she said.
Dejong went on to compliment the National Park Service for putting together a plan to allow motorcoach travel to resume.
“What better way to celebrate our country than visiting a couple of our favorite national parks,” she said.
The National Park Service email noted that the new rules had been created in collaboration with the motorcoach industry and the U.S. Public Health Service in an effort to increase access to the park.
And there’s really nowhere to go but up, when one takes a look at the statistics.
In 2019, more than 300,000 of the park’s roughly 4 million visitors arrived via motorcoach. Last year, there were fewer than 500.
So from the perspective of Rick Hoeninghausen, marketing director for Xanterra, the concessionaire in Yellowstone National Park, the lifting of the restrictions is a step closer to “normal.”
“Parks are a huge piece of the motorcoach industry and the packaged group tour business,” Hoeninghausen said. “They’ve also been really struggling through this pandemic, when you go from, you know, a strong business, perhaps to none. So this is big for them.”
Hoeninghausen does caution, however, that “normal” is still some time away.
“Bus companies can’t quite resume full operations, because the rooms and the locations they would have had access to are not yet available,” he said, citing the Park Service’s decision to delay the opening of some lodging and restaurants in Yellowstone.
But Hoeninghausen is said he was pleased to see steps been taken to encourage motorcoach travel to northwest Wyoming.
He added that because tour buses to Yellowstone typically run longer routes, the ripple effects will make a difference for the communities outside the park as well.
As a result, the news was also good for businesses such as the Irma Hotel in downtown Cody.
Mike Darby, the Irma’s co-owner, said tour buses make a huge difference for gateway communities like Cody.
“Tour buses are the backbone of our business in Cody,” Darby said. “They not only take up mass blocks of rooms, they also add a buffer and a foundation to our restaurant infrastructure, and just totally help everything move smoothly, and give us a guaranteed income, so to speak. So the rest of it ebbs and flows, but the tour buses keep going. And we’re glad to have the opportunity to serve them.”
Darby is also on the board of the Cody Stampede Rodeo, which operates Cody’s nightly rodeo June, July and August.
“As far as the rodeo is concerned, it’s going to basically ensure that we get 50 to 100 people extra per night, which is another, say, 10% business,” Darby explained. “And that’s just icing on the cake.”
Another popular tourist attraction, Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue in Cody, saw almost a 70% drop in business last year because group tours were canceled during the pandemic. So Miller also welcomed the tour bus news.
“That’s all we have to say, isn’t it?,” he said, smiling. “Buses are back. To me that’s the best news we’ve heard since a year ago this time, when they said ‘The buses are gone’.”
Miller pointed out that from his perspective, tour buses level the playing field.
“It lets everybody go back to business,” he said. “I won’t say ‘back to normal,’ because it’s not perfect. But boy, from where we stand, it’s pretty close.”