The pandemic hasn’t dampened tourists’ desire to visit Yellowstone National Park. Despite the hassles of traveling with hand sanitizer, masks and staying socially distant during the novel coronavirus outbreak, visitation to the park was up by about 2% in July compared to July 2019.
“Business has definitely been steady,” said Wendy Swenson, marketing director for the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve noticed that increase as well.”
The park hosted 955,645 recreation visits in July, almost half of which enter from the West Entrance at West Yellowstone. License plates reveal heavy traffic from Idaho, California and Utah, Swenson said. “But we are seeing visitors from all 50 states.”
Grand Teton National Park, just to the south of Yellowstone, saw a 3% uptick in July visitors, while Glacier National Park in northwest Montana saw a 48% decline.
The crush of visitation this year has been different. Swenson said travelers seem to have less patience as the town’s 1,200 residents attempt to service 10 times as many tourists. Melissa Alder, co-owner of Freeheel and Wheel bicycle shop in West Yellowstone, Montana, said her staff’s usual way of doing business with a focus on customer relations and service has become awkward.
“It’s a little bit different because we’re nervous about people coming into the store,” she said, especially since some tourists arrive from states without mask orders. So Alder and her staff are constantly cleaning in an attempt to kill the hitchhiking virus.
The crush of visitors comes despite a reduction in hotel rooms and places to camp inside Yellowstone, forcing many visitors to seek a night’s rest at surrounding national forest campgrounds or in hotels and motels in bordering gateway communities.
Campsite use in Yellowstone year-to-date was just over 1,000 so far this summer, compared to more than 57,000 last year. Park concession-operated campgrounds saw a decrease of 198,500 this year compared to 380,900 last year. Concession lodging was down 84%, from 465,000 last year to 72,700 this year. Even backcountry camping in Yellowstone was down by half.
Jeannette Mikos owns and operates the 15-room Yellowstone Basin Inn with her husband near Gardiner and the North Entrance to Yellowstone. She said their business saw a bump in July but they had also reduced their rates. She’s booked visitors from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Texas, but reservations going into fall have been spotty.
“People are looking to escape rather than to be somewhere,” Mikos said.
That would explain why tourists are booking last-minute reservations. Swenson said travelers are looking only five to seven days in the future when planning a trip. In West Yellowstone at least, she said travelers are making reservations for fall and winter visits.
Lauren Oswald, public services staff officer for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said the number of campers has been up in July and August, with “a high volume” of dispersed camping — people pitching a tent anywhere they can find flat ground.
That’s prompted the forest to beef up enforcement, which has mainly been educational, Oswald said. Dispersed campsites have no water, toilets or trash cans.
“It’s definitely a challenging landscape this year,” she said.
At existing campsites, she said the overflow of visitation has meant pumping vault toilets more often.
“The public lands around us are heavily pressured,” Alder said. “Unfortunately there’s a lot of trash and toilet paper flowers at pullouts.”
Gregory Lesky, owner of the Livingston/Paradise Valley KOA, said once the Montana gates to Yellowstone opened in June his business shot up and has remained as busy as last year. Many of his clients are arriving in new RVs, Lesky noted.
One firm data point that illustrates the desire to be outside is the vehicle counter on Hyalite Road south of Bozeman. In July use of that route, despite road construction, was up 20% over last July to 31,000 vehicles.
“Whether that’s an uptick in tourism or local people spending time on public land, I don’t know,” said Wendy Urie of the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
Part of the increase could be from outdoor-oriented people moving to the community from out of state. Alder noted her friends in resort communities like Big Sky, Montana; Jackson and Sun Valley, Idaho, have seen people moving permanently into their seasonal resort residences. Tales of people selling homes the same day they are listed at above-asking price are rampant in cities like Bozeman.
Visitation to Yellowstone National Park is a huge economic driver for Montana and communities near the park. A 2019 survey by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research showed Yellowstone as the state’s top draw when it comes to traveler spending — an estimated 34% of the state total or $1.27 billion. All told, travelers spent an estimated $3.77 billion in Montana in 2019.
A look back at this year’s travel spending will show a much bleaker number. The novel coronavirus outbreak stifled travel from March through May. Yellowstone didn’t even open its gates in Montana until June. Consequently, many businesses hired fewer staff to save money.
Those seasonal employees who did find work are navigating an unusual situation. A sign of the times is an ad in the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce newsletter noting that weekly employee surveillance testing for COVID-19 is being conducted for free for those who work closely with the public.
In the air
Although travelers seem to be willing to hop in the car, van or RV and drive to the state this summer, air travel is a different story. According to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, which draws the majority of a typical summer’s Yellowstone visitors, passenger arrivals were down 77% in June and 53% in July compared to 2019. From January through July the airport had seen a 46% reduction in travelers.
In Montana’s largest city, Billings Logan International Airport reported arrivals down almost 52% in July compared to last year and off by 48% year to date.
What the fall season will hold is open to speculation. Some businesses are seeing advanced bookings, and there’s a possibility that families with school-aged children may travel if coursework is online. Older visitors typically make up the majority of fall Yellowstone visitors. Some may stay home this fall out of concern for COVID-19.
“Who knows what will happen next season,” said Lesky, of the Paradise Valley KOA. But at least now businesses have some idea of what to expect, he added.
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