THE BUZZ 3: The Numbers Game

By on June 28, 2017

On the heels of portraitgate, businesses, and crowds, point to an unaffected tourist season in Jackson Hole.

During a recent summer, visitors in Yellowstone wait for Old Faithful to erupt. (Photo: NPS.GOV)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Despite people threatening to cancel their trips in response to Mayor Pete Muldoon’s recent redecorating decision, a lack of cancellations, and a congested town, suggests Jackson’s tourist economy has little to fear.

It’s no secret tourism is Jackson’s economic engine. Visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks generated more than $700 million to neighboring communities last year. Domestic and international travelers spent $1.02 billion in Teton County in 2016, according to the Wyoming Office of Tourism Economic Engine report. Visitors also pay more than half of sales tax in Teton County—they saved each local household an average of $5,785 in taxes last year. It’s true, then, that decreased visitation to Teton County would hit where it hurts—in the wallets of Teton County residents and business owners.

But so far, businesses aren’t reporting such loss. Rick Howe, vice president of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, says that responses have slowed down since last week’s decision to reinstall Trump’s portrait. The chamber has received “only a few more phone calls and letters” from concerned prospective visitors, but no cancellations to report.

Wort Hotel general manager Jim Waldrop says he hasn’t had any cancellations, despite “repeat guests informing us that they will not be coming back to Jackson.” The Wort was one of the specific businesses referenced in the many emails to Muldoon, but despite threats made to both the mayor and the hotel, Waldrop said “numbers are very strong and ahead of a record year last year.”

Teton County and its surrounding national parks are the biggest drivers of tourism in the state—60 percent of Wyoming’s visitors traveled to the northwest region of the state, which include Jackson and both national parks. But Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, says she is looking forward to a busy 2017 statewide. The August eclipse, she said, is “certainly going to give us a big boost.”

Indeed, Jackson is bracing itself for an influx of up to 100,000 people the week of August 21. “But we’re focused on an entire season, in addition to August 21 and the days leading up to it,” Shober said. And from “conversations with stakeholders, partners and businesses, there seems to be more optimism than a year ago.”

Shober’s office doesn’t keep real-time numbers of visitors, so she doesn’t have the data to back her optimism, but she says businesses across the state have reported earlier visitation this year, more walk-ins in hotels, and a higher number of visitors. “Overall, it seems 2017 will be a good year for tourism in Wyoming,” she said.

Trump slump

It is possible that international tourism to Wyoming and the United States has slowed since Trump’s inauguration. Whispers of a “Trump slump” have circulated around the travel industry since January. According to travel data company Forward Keys, international travel to the U.S. dropped 6.5 percent in the eight days following Trump’s proposed travel ban in January—the same ban that was just partially reinstated after a Supreme Court ruling.

Flight search engine Hopper reported a 17 percent drop in online searches for flights to the states. Reuters reports that Dubai-based Emirates Airline has cancelled five U.S. routes since April, citing travel restrictions imposed by Trump. The airline, which is the largest in the Middle East, is looking to make up for cancelled routes by redeploying flights to Saudi Arabia instead.

NBC reports that while tourism industry people from the U.S. Travel Association and American Society of Travel Agents say they have indeed noticed such a slump, they also acknowledge that international travel takes time to catch up with current events. The jury’s still out on just how much of an impact a Trump administration will have on foreign travel to the U.S.

Wyoming Office of Tourism media and public relations manager Tia Troy has “heard rumors of the Trump slump,” but said her office is holding steady with domestic and international marketing efforts. States like Florida, California and New York might have something to worry about, Troy said, but international visitors to Wyoming have been planning their trips for years. “They’re not flying by the seat of their pants,” she said. They come to Wyoming to have their “authentic Western adventure, exploring our wide-open spaces.” And Wyoming’s messaging, Troy said, is one of welcome. “We’re at an advantage, we’re known for our Western hospitality.”

Still, most visitations to Jackson Hole are likely domestic, as most visitors choose to drive. Seventy-three percent of Wyoming visitors arrived in a car or an RV last year. Those that do fly do so primarily from New York and California, according to an RRC Associates airport survey contracted by Jackson Hole Airport. Most international flyers come from Australia and Canada, the survey found, but collectively only made up about 7 percent of airport visitors last year.

It’s possible that, like international travel lags, impacts of a tourist boycott won’t show themselves until after the summer. But Travel and Tourism board members predicted news of Trump’s portrait removal, and any backlash to it, will soon blow over.

Amid the vitriolic emails, a small handful of out-of-state emails vowed to spend more tourist dollars in Jackson because of Muldoon’s decision to remove the portraits of Trump and Vice President Pence from town hall. A decision that has since been overturned by a town council vote.

“I was apprehensive about visiting until I saw the story about the picture,” wrote Bill Hoffman, who hasn’t visited since 1977. “Now I will spend time and $ (sic) in your town. Courage and thought should be rewarded.”

Scott Killian, a Buffalo, Wyoming, native who lives in Montana, also pledged to “travel down to Jackson this summer, not that I’m worried that the town will suffer financially from any of your recent decisions.” Killian wrote that he grew up with a bitter taste for Jackson’s “wealth, skiing, and access to two of the country’s premiere national parks” in his mouth. But now he is seeing the town in a new light. “Thank you for doing what’s right and totally within the law,” he wrote. PJH

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