Yellowstone expected to feel impacts of coronavirus

POWELL — Whether or not novel coronavirus itself makes its way to Wyoming, experts say businesses across the greater Yellowstone ecosystem will feel the effects of a lack of Chinese visitors. 

The Chinese government has imposed mandatory quarantines in parts of the country while the U.S. government has greatly restricted travelers from China to limit the spread of the new virus. 

Chinese tour groups are 100% suspended right now, said Brian Riley, a Wyoming tourism professional who has been marketing Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park tours to Chinese visitors for the past several years. 

“Most of China is like a ghost town right now,” Riley said. “I can’t see [the tourism industry] recovering before summer.” 

According to Yellowstone’s most recent Visitor Use Survey, about a quarter of all foreign visitors coming to the park are from China. Riley, owner of Old Hands Holdings in Jackson, said between 350,000 to 400,000 Chinese visitors travel to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem each year. 

But that number will sink in 2020. 

Chinese companies have closed plants and shifted supply chains to contain the spread of the infectious new coronavirus, known formally as COVID-19. 

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week that, “With 99% of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world.” 

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has also said the disease will “lead to disruptions in China that spill over to the rest of the global economy.” 

As for Yellowstone area tourism, the hardest-hit gateway community will be West Yellowstone, Montana. Almost half of all visitors entering Yellowstone come through the West Entrance and businesses in West Yellowstone have invested heavily in advertising to the Chinese market.

Riley stressed that the Chinese tourist market is different than most. Tourists from the country primarily do business with companies that reach out to them and that have gained trust through the years; they rarely stray from those businesses, Riley said. 

Businesses who have invested in advertising to the Asian population will be impacted the most in the coming season, including tour bus companies, hotels and gift shops — especially those traveling to and located inside the park.

“It will be devastating for some vendors, both inside and outside the park. It will affect the tax base as well,” Riley said. 

The tourism industry in the Cody area will feel economic losses, but not to the same extent, said Claudia Wade, executive director of the Park County Travel Council. 

“We haven’t put a lot of eggs in that basket,” she said. 

Wade said the Travel Council hasn’t made concerted efforts to target Asian visitors, but “it will affect many companies in the county.” For instance, she said the Blair Hotels group — which owns the Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn and Buffalo Bill Village in Cody — has advertised heavily to the Chinese market and will likely see more room availability this coming summer. 

Typically, “one-off” tourists from overseas have a greater impact than regional visitors. For example, those driving to northwest Wyoming from inside the U.S. “can bring their own sandwiches and drinks” and are less likely to spend large amounts of cash at gift stores, Riley said. 

In the U.S., California is the top state from which Yellowstone visitors originate: about 13% of all visitors traveled from the Golden State. Texas and Florida both contributed about 5% of the park’s visitors, followed closely by New York and Washington. Only about 1% of visitors come from Wyoming. 

Officials at Yellowstone have discussed the possibility of lower visitation rates, but have no plans to reduce staff or change the way visitors are received. 

“All visitors will be welcomed in the same way,” said Linda Veress, a spokesperson for the park. 

The effects of the loss in Chinese visitors will be felt early: In May, nearly 30% of all visitors to the park identified themselves as Asian, according to the survey.

In terms of Chinese travel to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the early season “will be a bust — virtually nonexistent,” Riley said.