In what’s been a most unusual season, 2020 Yellowstone visitation is as robust as ever, even though Yellowstone National Park is operating at less than full capacity, with plenty of services and lodgings shut down. So why are the crowds so robust? Blame the COVID.
If you were to predict how tourism would play out in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, you probably would have been right about a few things: folks by and large are avoiding travel in general, with airlines and hotels economically suffering as a result. And with tourist attractions operating at reduced capacities, we’re also seeing a dramatic impact on the supply side as well. No wonder the travel industry is suffering.
Except, it seems, in America’s national parks, including Yellowstone National Park, where the crowds have been unexpectedly robust so far this year. In fact, July 2020 Yellowstone visitation was up 2 percent over July 2019, despite the COVID-19 pandemic that has severely limited both national and international leisure travel. All in all, there were 955,645 recreation visits to Yellowstone National Park in July 2020. That’s a pretty impressive figure, considering there is limited lodge availability, no visitor centers open and no sit-down dining. Similarly, Grand Teton National Park hosted an estimated 755,762 recreation visits in July 2020–just a 3 percent decrease compared to July 2019. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic impacting foreign travel, Grand Teton officials say July 2020 has the fourth highest number of recreation visits on record for the month of July. And though we won’t see the August 2020 visitation for a few weeks, it would not be surprising—based on anecdotal reports—that visitation this month will end up being similarly robust, extending the 2020 Yellowstone visitation theme.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park are hardly alone in reporting robust visitation this summer: the same kind of boosts are reported in regional state parks and national forests. These entities are the beneficiaries of today’s travelers who are avoiding attractions and trips centered around airline travel and hotel stays, and who instead are gravitating toward car trips, sleeping in tents and RVs, and embracing the healthier great outdoors. They can control their surroundings and avoid crowds where possible. They feel safe in a place like Yellowstone or Grand Teton.
That same sense of safety isn’t universal, especially on the side of the workers who need to ensure this safety. Mandatory mask usage was welcomed by Montana businesses who did not welcome any confrontations with visitors, and while there is not mandatory mask usage in the outdoor areas of Yellowstone, they are required in any indoor areas, like lodge lobbies and grab-and-go food areas. The mandatory mask policy seems to be working in Bozeman and West Yellowstone, with only 57 active COVID-19 cases recorded as of Aug. 30 in Gallatin County. (Compare that number to the 949 active cases recorded in Yellowstone County as of Aug. 30.) Still, many areas within Yellowstone, such as the visitor centers, sit-down restaurants and many hotel lobbies, are closed to avoid any indoor transmissions. The approach is working: no positive COVID-19 tests have been recorded among National Park Service employees and only two for Yellowstone concessionaire employees, but they subsequently tested negative. Still, it’s not been a pleasant summer for Park Service employees:
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a summer that I want to end as quickly as this one,” says Cam Sholly, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. “There’s not a day that I come to work where I’m [not] fearful of multiple employees testing positive or having symptoms.”
Providing essential services to people who are looking for a summer escape, while also protecting them and park employees, is like “threading a needle,” Sholly says.
There is one important thing to note: by and large, the campers don’t spend as much money as the tourists who in previous years would have stayed at Old Faithful Inn and spent money in Gardiner or Cody as part of their travels. From Buckrail:
Still, more traditional tourist businesses like hotels, restaurants and shops — which were anticipating a banner year in 2020 — have been deeply impacted by shutdowns, restrictions and cancelled travel plans, she said, and more campers are unlikely to make up the difference….
According to a report prepared for the Office of Tourism, Wyoming visitors who stayed in public and private campgrounds spent $811 million, or about 20% of all visitor spending in 2019. Visitors who stayed in commercial lodging, meanwhile, spent $2.2 billion — or 57% of all visitor spending.
“We might be setting ourselves up for disappointment if we think camping will save” summer tourism, said Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism. But, “we need what we can get.”
With no COVID-19 vaccine on the immediate horizon and the reported cases nationwide in a gradual decline, the sentiments fueling this summer’s numbers won’t be changing any time soon. The big question is whether they’ll extend to the 2020 Yellowstone summer season.
Photo of crowds at Midway Geyser Basin on July 4 weekend by Jacob W. Frank, courtesy National Park Service.
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