When Jackson economist and Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter surveyed the community early during the COVID-19 crisis, he found most residents predicted that roadtrippers would return well before air travelers.
Seventy-two percent of his 857 respondents said visitors would refrain from road trips before July. Their prognosis for air travel was much more dire, with 86% saying tourists would refrain from flying until September or even later.
Fortunately for the area’s economy, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild splendors have drawn hundreds of thousands of people back to Jackson Hole well ahead of predicted benchmarks. But survey respondents’ hunch about the order of the rebound of travel modes was spot on, and there are now numbers from the earliest part of the season to prove it.
Grand Teton National Park has released visitation data and Jackson Hole Airport has put out passenger numbers for May. The skinny: Compared with May 2019, commercial air travel was down 88%, with only 2,409 passengers boarding Skywest, American and Delta jets instead of the 19,624 people who flew the year before.
Grand Teton visitation for the month was down 56% compared with the prior year, though that number is misleading because the park was off-limits for the first 17 days of the month this year. A more meaningful comparison looks at the last two weeks of the month, May 18-31, during which time recreational visitation decreased 28% year-over-year: from 150,296 people in 2019 to 108,889 this year.
Even amid the pandemic, 7 out of 10 people who would have ventured to Teton park in late May still came.
While there’s still plenty of financial hurt, and many bottom lines haven’t rebounded, other tourism-dependent businesses have staged a comeback.
Outpost, a company that manages 190 vacation rentals in the valley, was processing an average of 12 more cancellations than bookings per day between March 12 and May 11, the day Grand Teton National Park announced it would reopen the following week. But bookings then abruptly took off, owner Mekki Jaidi said, and through May 12-31 it averaged 25 more bookings than cancellations.
“We actually had more visitors in the later half of May than we did last year,” said Jaidi, who noted that his occupancy jumped from 70% in late-May 2019 to 88% in the same period this year.
Revenue was down, a caveat that’s telling of the still-absent air traveler, who tends to be a bigger spender from overseas or the East Coast.
“That cut out a whole entire section of demand,” Jaidi said, “and therefore we saw our budget rentals really outperform the luxury rentals.”
So far in June, he said, Outpost’s occupancy was performing on par with 2019, with 75% of rental units spoken for.
Valley hotels and lodges are also coming back, Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce President Anna Olson said. Overall occupancy in May was just 11%, she said, down from 54% in May 2019, but the figure climbed significantly after Memorial Day weekend.
The 60-day occupancy forecast is for 30% to 40%, which sounds grim, Olson said, well below the 70% estimate this time last year. But consumer habits have changed, she noted, and people are waiting until the last minute to book trips. Some hotels are already filling up 70% or 80% of their rooms, especially on weekends, she said.