CODY, WYO. — The first Friday in May has traditionally marked the opening of the East Gate to Yellowstone National Park, drawing a mix of locals and hearty travelers anxious to experience spring in a park still thawing out from a long winter.
But with Yellowstone still closed to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, tourism industry insiders are grappling with a plan for what summer might look like in the park and the gateway towns that rely on a steady stream of visitors to fill restaurants, hotels and attractions.
Park manages still haven’t announced an opening date. But they have said that Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks will see staged openings that start small and rely on fewer seasonal employees, with reduced services and a focus on visitor and worker safety.
Xanterra Travel Collection, Yellowstone’s primary concessioner and operator of most hotels and campgrounds in the park, is planning on starting operations in mid-June.
Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra, said Thursday that guest lodging will be limited at first to campgrounds and cabins that include bathrooms. Hotels will not open in June, Hoeninghausen said, but managers will assess options throughout the summer as public health conditions and National Park Service guidance allows.
Speaking to members of the Park County Travel Council, Hoeninghausen said he expects the campgrounds run by Xanterra to operate as they usually have, with a special focus on cleaning at shared restroom facilities. The Fishing Bridge recreational vehicle campground will not open, as road construction there continues this summer, concluding in the fall.
Hoeninghausen said Mammoth Hot Springs facilities will open June 15, with Yellowstone Lake area opening June 17 and Canyon opening June 19. Lodging will be limited to cabins and cottages at first, he said, “but if conditions change down the road and we’re in a position to open more or make additional services available, we’ll look at doing that.”
Grand Teton is following a similar strategy, focusing on cabin rentals, with no current plans to open Jackson Lake Lodge or Jenny Lake Lodge.
While Xanterra will likely continue boat rentals at Lake, bicycle rentals at Mammoth and other options that allow for social distancing, group tours in enclosed vehicles are not on the early summer agenda.
Hoeninghausen said he expects the Park Service to offer guidance to visitors on social distancing, particularly at places like the boardwalks around Old Faithful Geyser, but that practical limitations make enforcing any guidelines difficult and unlikely. The Park Service has not yet publicly discussed final details, but visitor centers, clinics and other key facilities are expected to be in operation when the park opens.
Though no final decisions have been made on restaurants, sit-down dining is not expected to be an option in early summer, with grab-and-go food likely to be offered instead.
Travel industry insiders are unsure what to expect of this year’s summer tourism season around Yellowstone and Grand Teton, but most say they anticipate a slow start as travel restrictions ease.
Adventure travel fueled by regional auto traffic is likely to fare better than segments like theme parks, cruises or other venues where social distancing is difficult.
Camping and fishing are seeing a “huge spike” in Internet search interest, said Andy Maclellan, president of Verb Interactive, a digital marketing agency that specializes in the travel Industry, and works with the Park County Travel Council.
Hotels in the park typically provide a sizable chunk of lodging taxes that gateway communities rely on to market themselves to travelers. But with those major facilities closed, and other hotels expecting significant cancellations, poor lodging tax collections this year will make it tougher to market the region next year. Some gateway operators have also said they fear a lack of lodging may lead to clogged campgrounds and lodging in small communities nearest the parks.
Some locals worry that tourists from foreign and major metropolitan markets may cause a spike in virus cases, taxing rural health care systems. Travel marketers in Park County and across the region are being cautious in their messaging, with a current focus on reminding visitors that travel should only happen when the time is right.
But for many locals who have typically streamed into Yellowstone on the first Friday in May—as well as those who rely on visitors to provide jobs and pay the rent—that time can’t come soon enough.
Disclosure: Reporter Ruffin Prevost is a member of the Park County Travel Council. Contact him at 307-213-9818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.