By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — If you made a visit to Yellowstone National Park before the end of June, consider yourself one in a million.
The latest park visitation figures show that more than 1 million recreational visitors have passed through Yellowstone during the first half of the year, with the park’s busiest season just getting under way.
Total visitation so far this year appears to be up slightly over last year, although a change in how visitors are counted complicates that comparison.
There were 744,056 recreational visitors to Yellowstone in June and a total of 1,016,651 for the first six months of 2013, according to figures released by the park’s public affairs office.
Comparing this year’s numbers with those of years past gets a little tricky because the National Park Service has changed how it calculates total visitors to Yellowstone.
Park managers have based visitation figures on vehicle counts, and for the past 20 years they have multiplied the total number of vehicles by 2.91, based on the idea that an average of 2.91 people per car enter the park.
But based on visitor surveys conducted last year that re-examined that multiplier, the per-car average has been revised down to 2.58. This means that even if slightly more cars enter the park this year, the lower multiplier could yield a number showing fewer total visitors.
And that’s exactly the story the numbers tell for the first half of 2013. The total number of cars, campers and other recreational vehicles is up 5.72 percent through June compared to the same period in 2012. But the new lower per-car multiplier yields a total number of visitors that is lower, lagging last year by 2.42 percent.
So the reality is that, in all likelihood, visitation this year is up a bit over last year by 5 percent or less, although the way the Park Service counts visitors won’t reflect that, based on the new multiplier.
In gateway communities like Cody, Wyo., tourism businesses are reporting solid numbers, and a bump in spending as well.
“I think we’re seeing as many—if not more—visitors in Cody than we did last year, and certainly they’re spending more money and more time in Cody,” Park County Travel Council marketing director Claudia Wade said.
While the economic outlook and gasoline prices play a big role in planning a vacation to Yellowstone and similar destinations, there are other factors behind why 2013 is up over last year, Wade said.
“Historically, an election year is typically not a great tourism year for us. We often don’t see any increases at all,” she said.
The uncertainty leading up to a presidential election often causes travelers on tight budgets to postpone big trips, while they are more likely to travel in the year after, Wade said.
July is typically Yellowstone’s busiest month, followed in order by August, June, September and May.
For June, all park entrances saw an increase in vehicle numbers over June 2012, with the north and east entrances posting the largest gains.
Park officials said they expect visitation for the rest of this year to remain roughly consistent with recent years.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].