The numbers are in on one of the most anticipated tourism events ever to take place in Wyoming. The results? The Great American Eclipse had a far more muted effect on the Cowboy State than the most optimistic estimates, but still contributed tens of millions of dollars to merchants along with a more modest sum flowing into public coffers.
About 99,000 out-of-state visitors said they came to Wyoming in late August solely to view the eclipse, according to a report released by the Wyoming Office of Tourism Monday, far below the projections of up to 500,000 eclipse visitors floated in the months leading up to the event. Another 100,000 people described the eclipse as an important factor in their trip.
Diane Shober, the tourism office’s director, said the state may have been too timid in marketing the eclipse out of concern that smaller communities would be inundated with tourists.
For two minutes and 42 seconds of totality, actor Will Wallace stretched his arms toward heaven and held the eclipsed sun.
“In hindsight I think we took maybe a too-conservative approach,” Diane Shober, the office’s director, said. “I wish we would have pushed a little harder.”
But Shober said she was still pleased with the total numbers. The report was compiled by Dean Runyan Associates and Destination Analysts based on surveys distributed during the eclipse weekend, Aug. 19 to 23.
(While initial car-counts from the Wyoming Department of Transportation pegged the number of eclipse visitors at above 1 million, Shober said that given the results of her office’s report she believes the same cars may have been counted multiple times.)
Wyoming’s population may have nearly tripled for a day during Monday’s total solar eclipse, according to early estimates.
The estimates are muddied by the fact that the report counted many visitors who said they would have traveled to Wyoming that weekend even if there had not been an eclipse.
Shober said the survey extrapolated on its sample size of roughly 1,900 people to determine the total number of visitors in Wyoming during the eclipse and how many of those people were on trips related to the eclipse. A Star-Tribune analysis of data in the report found that while more than 250,000 out-of-state visitors traveled to Wyoming during the eclipse weekend, about 45 percent would have come whether or not there had been an eclipse. Just under 40 percent said they would not have come without the eclipse, and another 15 percent said they were unsure whether or not they would have come.
But the tourism office report counted eclipse visitors as anyone who said that experiencing the eclipse was either “very important” or “important” to their decision to make the trip to Wyoming. Roughly 200,000 out-of-state visitors described the eclipse as an important factor and those individuals spent $63.4 million during that period, generating $3.8 million in tax dollars for the state and local governments, according to the report.
The report also found that 63,500 Wyoming residents traveled within the state on trips related to the eclipse.
Shober said that Wyoming faced an inherent disadvantage in drawing eclipse tourists because it is not close to many large population centers, meaning fewer people are within reasonable driving distance of the state. Other states within the path of the solar eclipse’s totality, such as Oregon, were much closer to major metropolitan areas.
Given that, Shober said she was happy with the total turnout over the weekend.
“We were thrilled,” she said. “For something that’s five days, that’s pretty phenomenal.”
(While Wyoming did not offer an official estimate of eclipse visitors ahead of the event, Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management planned to accommodate 1 million visitors in the state during the eclipse, but it appears that in the end far fewer people traveled to that state.)
Shober said that the over-the-top estimates of the number of tourists preparing to descend on Wyoming may have deterred more casual visitors who decided not to drive up from Colorado or neighboring states because they were worried about traffic jams and overcrowding in towns along the eclipse’s path.
Benefit to communities
On the ground, local officials said they were pleased with the turnout.
Casey Adams with Wind River Country, Fremont County’s tourism board, said the eclipse drew manageable crowds and that merchants and lodging operators were pleased.
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“When (the visitors) all left at the same time we had a little bit of a countywide, statewide traffic jam and it was actually a really cool physical demonstration of how many people chose Wyoming,” she said.
In Casper, which sat in the path of totality and was billed as the largest eclipse destination in the state, leaders said that while crowds fell somewhat below expectations, the eclipse festival was still a success.
Visit Casper CEO Brook Kaufman said the Wyoming Eclipse Festival generated community pride and was smoothly executed. While she was expecting more visitors to come, Kaufman said that even looking back she would not have amended the city’s promotional efforts. Expecting unmanageable crowds to arrive on Casper’s doorstep without any invitation, organizers intentionally chose not to try and attract additional visitors or draw tourists away from other eclipse-viewing destinations in the country.
“I’m actually really good with where we landed,” Kaufman said. “I thought it was a good decision.”
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Casper City Manager Carter Napier said that the city brought in about $450,000 in sales tax revenue above what was expected while spending only $150,000 on eclipse-related expenses.
Napier said the state’s report may have underestimated the economic benefit to cities and towns. The survey found that $7.5 million was spent by eclipse travelers in Natrona County, yielding $170,000 in local sales tax revenue.
“Oh I tell you, I think on the whole it was very positive for us and did create a lot of benefit,” Napier said. “But I do admit that I expected more from a population standpoint to descend on the community.”
But tourism officials said that the eclipse provided a benefit in publicity for Wyoming destinations, exposing visitors to parts of the state they might not have been familiar with and laying the groundwork for future trips. Those intangible benefits were not included in the report.
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“There were so many people who ended up in the state who wouldn’t have come otherwise,” Adams, in Fremont County, said. “We can count on that for word-of-mouth and return visits.”