JACKSON — Despite the plethora of complaints jaded locals might make — crowded walkways, traffic, tour buses, missed social cues — an overwhelming majority of respondents to the summer 2018 Visitor Use Surveys said their time spent in Yellowstone was positive.
With park visitation climbing above 4 million in recent years, Yellowstone administrators have begun surveying visitors to find congested areas and to gauge which parts of the park might need more attention.
“This study gives us very actionable information on how we can better manage and plan for increasing visitation in Yellowstone,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a press release.
The surveys had two main components: Some visitors took tablets in their cars while they drove around the park and answered questions at particular points along the way, while others were “intercepted at a range of attractions” to give their input, the report’s executive summary says. That allowed surveyors to gather site-specific information on crowding, traffic and restroom cleanliness, among other things.
Surveys focused on what are thought to be the busiest parts of the park. Those included the roads from West Yellowstone, Montana, to popular attractions like Old Faithful and the Norris Geyser Basin, as well as Canyon Village and Mammoth Hot Springs.
At all the spots, at least three out of four people said their experience was positive. Old Faithful and Canyon Village were two of the highest-rated areas.
Even though Old Faithful is one of the busiest (if not the busiest) places in the park, its infrastructure spreads tourists out. Nine of 10 people said their Old Faithful experience was either “good or excellent,” and only 30 percent said they saw more people than expected. Canyon Village saw similar levels of satisfaction.
The same cannot quite be said for some thermal features.
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“When site specific data were analyzed,” the report reads, “Midway Geyser Basin and Fairy Falls were the two locations where respondents were more likely to experience a greater sense of crowding, traffic congestion, and [lack of] parking availability.”
Particularly at Midway Geyser, visitors had to wait longer for parking — an average of 10 minutes — and more people said the restrooms were not clean. Midway and Fairy Falls were the two places visitors reported seeing more people than expected and a lower overall satisfaction rate.
The report notes a pair of conclusions separate from the location-specific findings. First, it notes several differences between domestic tourists and those from China, who have comprised an increasing percentage of visitors in recent years.
Chinese visitors were less likely than Americans to rate viewing wildlife and scenery as important. Rather, like other international visitors, they were more interested in “being around considerate people and being where it is safe.”
Visitors from China were also less concerned with people acting unsafely around wildlife, while American tourists and those from other international countries rated that as important. U.S. tourists were more likely than others to be satisfied with their experience, though the report notes that visitors from around the world enjoyed their time in the park.
Researchers also found a curious relationship between time spent in the park and overall experience. Those who had spent several days in Yellowstone or were repeat visitors by the time they were surveyed reported more frustration with other people’s behavior, like being too close to wildlife or geothermal features.
Those who had spent more time in the park also expressed a stronger desire for solitude and wild places than those on their first visit, perhaps because of their frustration with others’ behavior.
Yellowstone is the sixth-busiest park in the county, according to National Park Service data, so it doesn’t appear that the proliferation of tourists will abate anytime soon. Armed with the data from the 2018 surveys, park administrators hope to do what they can to ease concerns.
“The key takeaways from this study show that respondents perceive some problematic areas in the park, but overall were still able to enjoy their visit to Yellowstone,” the report says. “Park managers can use this data to adjust management in areas with greater challenges to help improve the visitor experience.”