By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — Despite a stubbornly high national unemployment rate and weak economy, visitation so far this year to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks has increased slightly over 2011, with the summer travel season ending on a relatively high note for the regional tourism industry.
Though recreational visits in Yellowstone National Park were down 3.1 percent in August compared to last year, year-to-date visits were up 2.1 percent for 2012 through August. Year-to-date visits through August were up 4.5 percent in Grand Teton National Park compared to 2011, according to figures available on the National Park Service website.
Though Yellowstone visitation dipped slightly in August, it was still the third-busiest August on record in the park, said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash.
“We really look at May through September as our core season now,” Nash said. “September has certainly seen a significant uptick in recent years. It truly has become a bigger component of our overall annual visitation.”
Gateway communities around the parks have seen solid summer hotel bookings, although some merchants are reporting a continuing trend of weaker retail sales seen in the years since the 2008 economic collapse.
“We’ve had a really robust summer,” said Jan Stoddard, marketing director for the West Yellowstone, Mont. Chamber of Commerce.
Stoddard said West Yellowstone Chamber members reported seeing more international visitors this year, particularly from Asia, as well as a strong return of visitors from across the United States. Recent years had seen more regional U.S. visitors, but fewer from far-flung states on the East Coast, Stoddard said.
“High gas prices and the first years of the recession were behind that, but it seems like that pattern has changed,” Stoddard said. “It’s good to see license plates again from places like Rhode Island and Delaware.”
In Cody, Wyo., the trends were similar, but with more international visitors from Europe, where Buffalo Bill Cody and the Old West remain a strong attraction for those visiting the U.S.
“I would agree that we saw a better diversity of license plates this summer than last summer,” said Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce.
But retail sales compared to 2011 were down slightly in Cody, Balyo said, as tourists are still taking vacations, but remaining cautious in spending on extras like souvenirs or discretionary shopping.
An informal survey of Cody Chamber members Balyo posted Aug. 17 showed that sales at 80 percent of responding restaurants were the same or better compared to an average summer, while 20 percent said diners spent slightly less than usual.
Wildland fires burning in and around the parks caused a few smoky days, but resulted in no serious road or campground closures. And though the weather was dry, it was sunnier and warmer than last year.
Both Balyo and Stoddard said their communities were looking forward to solid fishing and hunting seasons, as gateway communities continue to promote the “shoulder seasons” of fall and spring as great times to visit the parks.
Communities are also promoting the parks as a reason to visit, while pushing nearby attractions as worth staying a few extra days for.
A large percentage of travelers come to Montana to visit Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, said Mary Paoli, a spokeswoman for Voices of Montana Tourism, an industry trade group.
Montana hotel occupancy outperformed the national average in June and July, and was the highest in the nation in July, with 84 percent of the state’s rooms booked, according to figures released by Voices of Montana Tourism.
Strong demand for Montana hotel rooms pushed room rates up over last year, according to Smith Travel Research, with rates increasing by by nearly 8 percent in June and more than 4 percent in July over the same months in 2011.
Paoli said her group is working to remind Montana residents of how important lodging taxes are in promoting the state as a prime tourist destination and playground for outdoors enthusiasts.
“That’s the primary reason why travelers come to Montana, to experience something they don’t necessarily have in their own backyard,” she said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].