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Tourism

Record Visitation Puts Strain On Yellowstone Resources

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Record visitor numbers in Yellowstone National Park in July have strained the park’s staff and services in ways not seen in the Park’s 149-year history, according to officials. 

Last month, the park reported a record 1,080,000 visitors.

Mike Keller, general manager for Xanterra Parks and Resorts in Yellowstone, said his staff was largely prepared for high visitation numbers throughout the summer.

“This isn’t just a July situation,” he said. “You know, really, ever since travel started opening up again in the country, this spring, Yellowstone’s been a very popular destination. Because, you know, Americans can’t travel internationally, domestic travel is really kind of driving what’s happening here. And we’ve just seen high, high levels of visitation here in the park — higher than we’ve historically had in the past.” 

For Xanterra, which operates all the lodging and restaurants in the park, that means that not only are the crowds larger, tempers can be shorter.

“We’ve all been on those long family vacations where it may not be the most pleasant time in the car for eight days, from place to place, but it’s still hard when we have a guest throw food in an employee’s face, or poked him in the chest, or started swearing at him,” he said. 

“So, I’ve witnessed some very unpleasant interactions between customers and our employees; but I’ve also witnessed some customers go out of their way to really thank our staff, and be appreciative that they’re even there to try to assist them and help them,” he added. “But some people have come in here and could have exercised better behavior.”

Keller noted other parks besides Yellowstone are experiencing the issues associated with overcrowding.

“This is kind of a nationwide trend,” he said. “All national parks are reporting strong visitation, strong interest in coming to see these national treasures.”

Keller added that the high volume of people in parks, coupled with pandemic-related supply chain issues, means further complications in an already stressful summer.

“It’s been very challenging,” he said. “As part of the supply chain challenges, there’s not enough truck drivers, so there’s merchandise and product, but nobody can drive from point A to point B. And then from there, get it to us so that we can actually sell it within our operations, within the park.” 

“We’ve had to change menus almost on a day by day basis at some operations, just because we’re unable to get a steady supply of the products we need to provide certain meals for our guests,” he said.

And just like at businesses across the rest of the country, staffing is a problem in the national parks as well.

“We’ve increased wages,” he said. “We’ve offered free housing this year, we’ve tried to do things to help make the awesome experiences a little more enticing for somebody to want to come work for us here in the park. But staffing has been a challenge.” 

And that means that for visitors, some services are limited.



“We have about 80% of our services open this year,” he said. “Some things we just didn’t open – so that’s kind of helped with our staffing, because we don’t need that extra 200 or 300 employees to fill those gaps. But having said that, we are still seeing challenges, especially in food and food (preparation). And as a result, we haven’t opened some restaurants; sit-down dining is very limited here in the park. Some restaurants are open, but they’re buffet only, they’re not a full menu. 

“But you know, there’s times where the lines can back up – when you’re the only restaurant open, you’re trying to feed 1,000 people at a location at seven o’clock at night, it can get backed up pretty fast,” he continued. “So we’re doing the best we can to try to keep recruiting employees and trying to streamline our menu process so visitors aren’t having to wait too long.”

Keller said the record-setting pace for visitors does not appear to be ending soon.

“You know, our record-ever visitation was about 4.2 million visitors; we’re on pace for about 4.7, 4.8 million visitors this year,” he said. “So we’re talking a 10% to 15% increase over the last year from our biggest year, which was 2017.”

But on the bright side, Keller said, Wyoming is a big place.

“Yellowstone is big, Wyoming is big,” he said. “There’s a lot of great places to go to, and kind of spread out, but at the same time, that’s a lot of people in a small area where there’s very limited infrastructure, I think, to support all the demand that’s happening in this region.”

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Record Tourism Year, Lack Of Help Strains Wyoming Businesses

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

It’s been a busy summer for Wyoming’s tourism industry. 

Yellowstone National Park is setting visitation records — in June of this year, over 938,000 people visited the park.

That broke the previous all-time high number for June visitation set in 2016 by almost 100,000.

For park gateway communities, that means business has been good. But it has also put a strain on businesses already suffering from a shortage of workers.

Ryan Hauck, the Park County Travel Council’s executive director, said he was enthusiastic about the number of people traveling to — and through — Cody.

“We are seeing record numbers all throughout Park County,” he said. “I know our guest and dude ranches are doing amazing, our attractions are doing amazing, our restaurants are full.”

Hauck said attractions and retailers in the towns just east of Yellowstone are reporting not just their best June ever, but their overall best month ever. However, Hauck admitted the high number of visitors is causing an unintended negative effect because of a limited workforce.

“You kind of get worried about, you know, that traveler experience,” he said. “Is our destination holding up to the demand?”

Restaurant owners in Cody said the demand has been taxing — especially in light of the labor shortage that has impacted small businesses throughout the country. Susan Cory has owned Peter’s Cafe in Cody for nine years, but has worked at the small sandwich and ice cream shop for over 30.

“We can’t keep up,” she said. “I’m having to double staff breakfast, because it’s that busy, so it’s making me short-staffed for our closing shift.”

According to Donna Lester at the Workforce Service office in Cody, across the region, the number of people actively looking for work has dwindled to almost nothing. 

“In June I was in five different states. I traveled to Idaho, through Oregon, California, Utah, Nevada, and it is everywhere,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing – the workforce has just kind of disappeared.”

The lack of workers, coupled with the increase in tourism, means that visitor experience that Hauck referenced has definitely been impacted.

“A lot of our local businesses aren’t opening until (4 p.m.), or they’re closing parts of the day or certain days of the week,” Lester said. “You know, just today I went to meet somebody for lunch, and they had gone to three different places to try to have lunch, and either they couldn’t get in because it was packed, or because the other places weren’t open.”

So business owners like Cory are working around the clock, and closing one or two days a week to best use the staff they have.

“I normally run with 14 people, we’ve been running with nine and 10,” she said. “And they’re getting burned out, because I had two applicants, and they were both 14 year olds, so I hired both of them. I have never not had a stack of applications to go through.”

Cory’s predicament is just one example of a scenario that is playing out all across the region. Business owners who are already overwhelmed with the number of tourists who are in town are having to work extra hours — and there’s no relief in sight.

“I don’t have an extra person to cover when people call off,” Cory said. “And it’s just going to get worse in the next three weeks when we lose all our high school kids.”

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Federal Unemployment Benefits End, But Wyoming Tourism Worker Shortage Persists

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By Elyse Kelly, The Center Square

As Wyoming gears up for another summer of increased visitation, tourism-reliant businesses are still struggling to find enough workers to operate fully.

Many business owners attribute the predicament to unemployment benefits people are receiving, Wyoming Public Media reported.

Domenic Bravo, CEO of Visit Cheyenne, echoed that thought.

“I think there were some unintended consequences when some of the benefits that were there during COVID got extended,” he told The Center Square.

Gov. Mark Gordon decided to stop accepting the federal unemployment supplement in the state starting June 19. But Bravo said the timing may have been too late.

“The timing of when some of those benefits were either ended at the federal level or states ended them early: if it’s mid-season by then, those that were actually seeking jobs may have found them in other sectors,” he said.

David Bullard, a senior economist at the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, Research and Planning, said that those benefits definitely make a difference in labor supply, WPM reported. But he believes the governor’s decision to end them should make a difference.

“I expect that will cause some kind of shift in the labor supply curve and more people will be willing to work at that point,” Bullard told WPM.

Since COVID-19, however, the landscape has altered, Bravo said.

“After COVID, things have changed just in terms of how to recruit,” he said. “I think beforehand in the hospitality/tourism area we were really hard-pressed to find folks who really understood the great benefits of working in that industry: a lot of good training, upward momentum and just a fun work environment. In Cheyenne here, we call it the ‘Cool Jobs Website.’”

Now it’s even harder.

Bravo said the industry is going to have to work really hard to make these kinds of jobs desirable and back in the mainstream.

Before the benefits started, Bravo said many unemployed tourism workers were forced to find jobs elsewhere outside the industry. He said it will be a struggle tracking that demographic down and enticing them back to work in their previous field.

Wyoming business owners told WPM that their attempts to offer bonuses for employees who stick out the summer aren’t working; however, Bravo expressed optimism that efforts by employers like hiring bonuses, increased pay, and added benefits will make a difference in building up Wyoming tourism’s workforce.

Until that happens, he asks visitors to the state to be patient with businesses — whether they order at a restaurant and the food takes longer or it isn’t open certain days.

“I think employers and employees are doing the best they can, and as long as we understand and try to help each other, my hope is, in the end, it will be successful,” he said.

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Yellowstone, Grand Teton Tourism Supports 11K Jobs, Creates $800M In Spending

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

More than 3.8 million people visited Yellowstone National Park last year and spent more than $444 million in communities near the park, according to a new National Park Service report.

That spending supported 6,110 jobs in the area near Yellowstone, which had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $560 million, according to the report.

The spending analysis was conducted by economists with the NPS and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Overall, about 7.1 million people visited national parks in Wyoming and spent an estimated $859 million in “gateway” regions, communities within 60 miles of a national park.

While this is the lowest amount of spending Wyoming has seen since 2014, national parks were closed for nearly two months in 2020, from mid-March to mid-May, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This spending supported a total of 11,300 jobs, generating $333 million in labor income $604 million in “value added” — the difference between the production cost of an item and its sale price — and $1 billion in economic output in the Wyoming economy. The majority of these jobs were divided among restaurants, lodging and “secondary effect” businesses.

The lodging sector had the highest amount of spending, with $310 million. Restaurants followed, making $151 million last year.

The lowest amount of tourism spending went to camping, just under $33 million.

Nationally, the report showed that $14.5 billion was spent by more than 237 million park visitors across the U.S. This spending supported 234,000 jobs nationally, and 194,400 of those jobs were found in gateway communities. The nation’s cumulative economic benefit was $28.6 billion.

In 2019, Wyoming saw $924 million in visitor spending. However, last year’s economic output was comparable to years prior, down by just $1 million compared to 2017 through 2019.

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Yellowstone Could Have Record Year Despite Loss of 1 Million International Tourists

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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. 

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Wyoming State Parks Visitation Numbers Heading Into Summer Are ‘Encouraging’

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By Elyse Kelly, The Center Square, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s state parks system is preparing for a busy summer.

Last year was a record-breaker for the state in terms of visitation, with parking lots overflowing and campsites booking out solid as people sought respite from strict lockdowns in other states.

Gary Schoene, public information office manager for Wyoming State Parks, said park officials don’t know if this year will be quite that busy, but they are expecting plenty of visitors.

“Our numbers reservation-wise are a little bit lower than last year, but not much, which is encouraging since there’s quite a bit more competition for the consumer dollar right now because things are starting to open up a little bit,” he told The Center Square. “So if [Memorial Day Weekend] is any judge, it looks like we should have a fairly decent summer visitor-wise which is encouraging.”

Learning from last year, Schoene said the department converted a few more campsites into first-come-first-serve sites rather than reservation only after feedback from visitors.

“Some people they don’t know until the day before or whatever that they are going to be able to camp so hopefully the first-come-first-served sites help those people in that regard,” he said.

More visitors generate more revenue for the parks which they can then use to make improvements, Schoene pointed out. 

The state parks funding this year was workable, but he said they can always use more money. 

“We can always use more money in terms of maintenance and operations, that type thing,” Schoene said. “There was a bill this last year, House Bill 58, which did allow us to do that with the money we generate with reservations and other user fees so that helps some, but you always feel like you could use some more.”

Schoene said the department is planning to hold as many events as they safely can this year. All facilities will be open this year as the state returns to operations as usual, he said.

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Beartooth Highway: One of the Most Scenic Roads in the World Opens Friday

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

There are many tell-tale signs of summer. One is the reopening of roads which have been snowed-in or snowed-under for months.

Like the Beartooth Highway which connects Red Lodge, Montana to Cooke City, Montana.

The plan is to reopen the highway on Friday, May 28 at 8am.

The view? Unbelievable.

Travel organizations have called it one of the most scenic roads in the world.

“A scenic summer route (the snow falls heavy and voluminous in this country), the Beartooth is arguably the most stunning road into Yellowstone. It’s worth seeing in and of itself,” writes Yellowstone Insider.

The highway, which first opened in 1937, provides a direct route to Yellowstone National Park’s Northeast Entrance.

Just because it’s open doesn’t mean it will stay open. Officials warn of rapidly changing weather. In other words, it can be winter-like in the summer.

“Conditions can change quickly, especially during spring and fall, and roads can temporarily close due to poor driving conditions. Plan to have alternate routes for travel should the highway close,” a Yellowstone National Park spokesperson said on Wednesday.

Although the clear majority of the reviews for the drive on the travel site TripAdvisor rate the experience as positive (781 out of 834 reviews rank it 5 stars or excellent), some people still weren’t pleased.

A two-star reviewer complained about the pokey-ness of the drivers.

“The majority of the time I was riding 10 to 15 miles per hour below the speed limit. Do yourself, and everyone else on the road a favor, have someone else drive or take the highway and go around. If you are a nervous driver/rider STAY OFF this road,” wrote a reviewer from Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.

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Thursday Tourism: Cowboy Carnival Back On In Hyattville

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A full day of old-fashioned family fun, complete with live music, foot races, a pie contest, a barbecue and a sharpshooter contest is on tap in Hyattville on Sunday as the town’s community center sponsors its annual Cowboy Carnival.

Canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, this weekend’s event is the 17th annual holding of the carnival.

“After suspending our 2020 Hyatteville Cowboy Carnival as an abundance of caution due to COVID-19, now Cowboy Carnival is back,” the Hyattville Community Center said on its website. “We look forward to resuming this annual tradition.”

In an interview with Cowboy State Daily in 2019, Linda Hamilton, the community center’s treasurer, said many members of the community southeast of Basin help out with the event.

“We have a good community that steps forward to do this,” Hamilton said. “It’s quite an event and it’s amazing that we can pull a community together and have them do this much.”

Proceeds from the event, including money raised by the beef, lamb and pork barbecue, will be used to support the community center, a former elementary school that is now used as a hub for a variety of events such as weddings and funerals. The center also has a small library and exercise room.

Sunday’s events kick off with a “sharpshooter contest” at 10 a.m. at the old airstrip south of Hyattville, along with a 5K run/walk, book sale, quilt show and photo contest.

A kids’ race through Hyattville will be held at 11 a.m. and live music by “songteller” Dave Munsick will begin at noon.

Lunch will be served at 12:30 p.m., followed by a sheep dog competition at 1 p.m.

The day will end with a live auction featuring items donated from throughout the region.

For more information, visit the community center’s website at: https://www.hyattville.org/

Other events scheduled for the long Memorial Day weekend include:

The grand opening of the Military Memorial Museum at Nelson’s Museum of the West in Cheyenne on Monday;
Casper’s annual “Cruizin’ with the Oldies” car show at the Yellowstone Garage Bar, Grill and Venue on Saturday;
The Buffalo Lions Club Fishing Derby at Lake DeSmet Saturday through Monday;
The Wyoming State Cup and Championship and United Cup soccer tournament, Friday through Sunday at the North Casper Soccer Complex;
The “Pit Digger” mud rally in Saratoga on Saturday, and
The “Canyon to Curve” Fun Run/Walk on Monday at the Casper Boat Club.

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Park County Will Continue Upkeep For Road to Ghost Town of Kirwin

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By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune

Park County road and bridge crews will continue to maintain a Shoshone National Forest road leading to the ghost town of Kirwin.

On Tuesday, county commissioners renewed a five-year agreement with the Forest Service to maintain that route west of Meeteetse, plus two county roads in the Sunlight area that also lie within the Shoshone. In exchange for that work, the Forest Service will pay the county up to $15,000 a year.

Commissioner Lloyd Thiel cast the lone vote against the cooperative agreement, saying he wanted the maintenance of the Kirwin road to be turned over to a private contractor.

“I realize a lot of this is working with you guys and everything,” Thiel told Shoshone representatives, “but I’m also representing all the taxpayers out here in the county that might be employed privately by doing this.”

He also said the county was losing money on the arrangement; in 2019, county officials said the Forest Service’s payment covered about 37.5% of the roughly $47,500 cost to maintain 25.3 miles of the Hunter Creek, Sunlight and Kirwin roads.

However, the Hunter Creek and Sunlight roads are owned by the county and would be maintained by county crews regardless of whether the Shoshone was helping pay for the work. And as for the road to Kirwin, Park County Engineer Brian Edwards has previously suggested that the route — which is used by local recreationists — could potentially be closed if the county didn’t maintain it. He noted that the county also plows the Beartooth Highway to the Pilot Creek snowmobiling parking area in the Shoshone each winter.

“We have a relationship [with the Shoshone] to where it’s in the public good to try to work together to take care of some of these things that would be kind of costly to contract out,” Edwards said.

The Shoshone’s district engineer, Beau Batista, said it’s better for taxpayers if the forest can maintain the roads at a lower cost. He also said that, out of the three private contractors that currently maintain other Shoshone roads, only one has ties to Park County.

Hoping to find cost savings last year, Shoshone officials had asked the county to consider taking on 28 additional miles of forest roads that are now maintained by contractors.

However, commissioners balked at taking work away from the private sector — and Shoshone officials were ultimately unsure they would save any money; forest officials said they pay an average of $1,100 to $2,000 per mile, while Edwards estimated the county would want to charge $1,800 to $2,000.

While commissioners gave no indication Tuesday that they were interested in taking on any other roads in the Shoshone, the board voted 3-1 to continue maintaining the Kirwin route and renew the entire agreement.

In supporting the arrangement, Commissioner Scott Mangold wondered whether the Forest Service could make other federal funding contingent on the county maintaining the Kirwin Road for free.

“… I think for [$15,000], we’re getting a pretty good deal,” he said.

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Wyoming Office of Tourism Launches WY Responsibly 2021 Summer Campaign

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The Wyoming Department of Tourism announced it will launch its second summer of the WY Responsibly campaign on June 1, encouraging all to be mindful travelers throughout the state. 

The WY Responsibly campaign is a value-based mission to educate and facilitate responsible travel by being stewards of Wyoming’s natural spaces, wildlife, communities and culture.

As the least populated state with the most room for adventure, in 2020 Wyoming experienced high visitation throughout all its national parks, monuments and forests, as well as state parks and other popular destinations where travelers could enjoy wide-open spaces. 

While interest for Wyoming continues to grow, the state still offers room to roam among its hidden gems and under-the-radar destinations throughout its nearly 100,000 square miles.

“Outdoor recreation has become even more popular over the past year with people looking for naturally social-distanced activities. With our wide-open spaces, Wyoming is an ideal destination for travelers and this summer we anticipate even more visitors will explore the state,” said Diane Shober, Executive Director of Wyoming Office of Tourism. 

“As the last bastion of the west and with nearly 50 percent of the state designated public land, it is important for visitors and residents to be mindful travelers and work together to keep Wyoming wild and free.”

The WY Responsibly campaign was initially launched as a response to COVID-19, providing safe travel tips and resources that resonated with travelers and residents alike, and led to WOT expanding the campaign into 2021 by fostering three main initiatives. 

These initiatives were created with input from 10 national-and state-level outdoor agencies and developed to address concerning behaviors each experienced last summer.

Enjoy Natural Spaces Responsibly

Resources on how to respect the outdoors, including camping and trail etiquette, outdoor safety, precautions and best practices.

Co-Exist Responsibly

Resources on how to respect wildlife, reporting wildlife interactions, fishing guidelines and gear suggestions to prepare for any encounters.

Be Part of a Responsibly Community

Resources on how to respect fellow travelers and locals, including current health guidelines, tips on supporting local businesses and how to avoid overcrowding with recommendations for destinations throughout the state and along any road trip.

The WY Responsibly campaign is a component of WOT’s award-winning tourism campaign, “That’s WY.”  Elements of the WY Responsibly campaign include local and national paid media investment, social media components and an ambassador program where WOT will select six outdoor, wildlife and community leaders and stewards to represent each initiative. State parks, national forests and other community visitor centers will have stickers or patches for visitors.

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