Yellowstone Sees 9.5% Upturn This Summer
Despite higher prices at the pump, the number of visitors to Yellowstone National Park has been on the rise this tourist season, a roughly 9.5% increase in May, June and July compared with 2006, according to the Billings (Mont.) Gazette.
It’s not uncommon for park visitation to flutter a few percentage points, but 2007 seems to be something more.
“When you’re nearing double digits, I think that becomes significant,” said Al Nash, Yellowstone’s spokesman.
Yellowstone is a flagship destination for Montana and Wyoming, and both states are feeling the tourism upsurge this summer. Last year, 10.3 million out-of-state visitors came to Montana and spent about $2.9 billion, a 6% increase over 2005.
So far this summer – with Glacier National Park also up about 5% – things are shaping up to be even better.
“Across the board, things are looking really good,” said Sarah Lawlor, spokeswoman for Travel Montana.
Each spring there is speculation that increasing gasoline prices will dampen tourist traffic to Yellowstone. But visitor numbers in the park, which have been relatively static in the past few years, took a sudden upward turn this year. There was an 11.6% jump in May over May of last year, followed by an 8.6% increase in June compared with June 2006 and an 8.5% increase in July over the previous July.
Some of the most dramatic shifts have been at the East Entrance, west of Cody, Wyo.
There, traffic shot up 36% in June and 38% in July compared with a year earlier. One of the biggest reasons is that this is the first summer in years when there hasn’t been construction along that stretch of road.
“Our numbers are up significantly this summer,” said Claudia Wade, director of the Park County Travel Council in Cody.
The Buffalo Bill Historical Center has seen a 10% up tick, the nightly rodeo is up 9% more than last year, and 22% more visitors this year have come to the Buffalo Bill Dam just outside town, Wade said.
“We’re happy campers,” she said.
Over in West Yellowstone, business has been brisk at restaurants, hotels and campgrounds. That might partly be due to an aggressive marketing campaign in recent years, said Mary Sue Costello, director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce. But parsing out all of the factors that influence tourist trends in and around Yellowstone is difficult.
Lawlor said she understood that RV business in West Yellowstone has been up 25% this year, which doesn’t do much for the theory that higher gas prices put a crimp on road trips.
Denice Harris, a spokeswoman for AAA in Montana, said one recent survey indicated that $4 per gallon would be a point where people start canceling trips or changing their driving behavior.
In the past, that supposed “tipping point” had been pegged at $3 per gallon. Someday it may creep up to $5, she said, or it may be myth altogether – especially when it comes to people visiting a place like Yellowstone.
“I don’t think it matters,” she said.
Travelers to Yellowstone often make plans months, if not years, in advance and aren’t likely to call them off because of a spike in fuel prices, officials said.
“For the most part a family who plans a vacation to Yellowstone, typically it’s one of the biggest vacations they’re going to take,” Wade said.
If they pay more at the pump, they may be more likely to cut expenses elsewhere, like eating at cheaper restaurants or buying fewer souvenirs.
Inside Yellowstone, shops and hotels were bustling earlier than normal this summer. Jim McCaleb, who runs Xanterra Parks and Resorts operations in Yellowstone, said this year’s activity comes on the heels of several years without significant increases.
“These aren’t huge strides forward if you look at the multiyear trend,” McCaleb said, “but it’s a nice bounce back.”