JACKSON, Wyo. — Many Jackson locals thought the valley would be nearly empty this summer, especially when Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks closed in spring due to COVID-19 concerns.
But now, the opposite is true.
The parks were only temporarily closed during a time of year that Jackson sees few visitors, and opened back up on May 18, right around when the summer tourist season begins.
Jackson has seen a heavy increase in tourism numbers since the parks reopened. Earlier this month, the Jackson Hole Airport posted its load numbers for March through June, which showed an increase of nearly 26% from May to June in air travelers to the valley.
Tourism has been so prolific in Jackson Hole that National Geographic recently published an article on high tourism volume in the small mountain town, stating that “Mountain towns, beach communities, and vacation destinations throughout the country are facing an influx of visitors—many traveling from virus hotspots—in the middle of a rapidly worsening pandemic.”
Cell phone data gathered from the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board shows a spike in visitors, surpassing numbers from the past three years. As of July 24, tourism rose to 14% above average.
Conventional accommodations like hotels and motels are at or near capacity. Data from the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce suggests a typical summer for a tourist town normally stuffed to the gills with visitors.
But it is the unconventional visitor that has the county experiencing off-the-chart metrics right now. Camping, for instance, is more robust than in previous years. So much so, the Chamber is recommending people arrive at campsites very early in the morning or face being shut out.
RV Parks like the Virginian and Fireside Resort told Buckrail they are beyond full with reservations showing no slack until the end of September.
VRBO, Airbnb, and other short-term vacation rental websites show record business in the Teton County area.
Spillover from visitors with no bed or RV space awaiting their arrival are being forced to car camp wherever — off side streets in town and in highway pullover areas just outside the city’s welcome signs.
Town leaders held a special meeting Monday to discuss allowing food trucks to provide locals and visitors alike with something to eat. Police say they are fielding more calls than usual for illegal camping on city streets and in local parks. Park and Forest officials say campgrounds are getting trashed and dispersed camping is causing degradation of other areas not meant for camping. And the risk of wildlife as a result of increased irresponsible camping is a concern.
Some speculate that the rise in numbers correlates to visitors coming to Jackson as a place of “refuge” from the virus, when in fact, Teton County has the third-highest case numbers in the state behind the much more populated Fremont and Laramie Counties.
The term ‘safe-cations’ was born as a way to describe those seeking to get away from the virus, and Jackson Hole finds itself squarely on the map when it comes to disease-dodging destinations. Many vacationers still report Jackson Hole as a relatively disease-free place to spend a few days or weeks.
It’s a novel summer for a town geared toward hosting millions every summer but finding itself struggling to keep up amid restaurant closures, limited-service industry employees, and general infrastructure pressure that is palpable.
Teton County officials say that recent recordings of higher case numbers are a product of spread from local to local in young adult age groups who have reportedly had large social gatherings. It’s also true that young adults in Jackson are typically the seasonal workers on the front lines in restaurants, retail stores, hotels, and tourism companies. The county recently passed a mandatory mask order in attempts to limit virus spread and provide some relief for businesses who have received verbal abuse from customers refusing to wear a mask.
The struggle that town and county officials are facing is keeping the economy open while trying to limit those exposed to the virus, which would ultimately overwhelm Jackson’s only hospital, St. Johns Health, if serious case numbers continue to rise. It’s a balancing act that has heavy implications on both sides, and officials say they are doing the best they can with very limited resources.
Kate Sollitt, executive director of the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board, said they are focusing on tourism management instead of marketing. “The Travel and Tourism Board is doing no [destination] marketing, and continually emphasizing our safety message; using it in social media, signage, banners, and on our website. Our focus is really on the health and safety of our community and our guests.”
The town often struggles to keep up with the added ~40,000 visitors that are in the area on any given day during the height of summer tourism. But now, with more businesses closing, and record visitation numbers, this summer is proving to be more challenging than ever for the town with a population of less than 11,000.
40 RIVER TRAIL CIRCLE Alpine
12415 S SHEEP HORN RD Jackson
330 E GILL AVE Jackson
4 WINGER CIRCLE Victor
669 TURTLE WALK Victor
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