POWELL — Whether or not the new 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 this summer.
The Chinese government has imposed mandatory quarantines in parts of that country — where the infectious virus formally known as COVID-19 originated — and the U.S. government has greatly restricted travelers from China to limit its spread.
Chinese tour groups are 100% suspended right now, said Brian Riley, a Wyoming tourism professional who has been marketing Yellowstone National Park 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 and 400,000 Chinese visitors travel to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem each year.
But that number will sink in 2020.
“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,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week.
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.”
In terms of Chinese travel to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the early season “will be a bust — virtually nonexistent,” Riley said. In May, nearly 30% of all visitors to Yellowstone identified themselves as Asian, according to the Visitor Use Survey.
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 that have invested in advertising to the Asian population — including tour bus companies, hotels and gift shops, especially those traveling to and located inside the park — will be impacted the most in the coming season, Riley said.
“It will be devastating for some vendors, both inside and outside the park,” he said. “It will affect the tax base as well.”
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.
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 Park County 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.
Officials at Yellowstone have discussed the possibility of lower visitation rates, but have no plans to reduce staff or to change the way visitors are received.
“All visitors will be welcomed in the same way,” said Linda Veress, a spokesperson for the park.