It’s midsummer in Jackson Hole and bumper-to-bumper traffic on Broadway, Snow King Avenue and Highway 22 has felt worse than ever before.
Lines for a morning bagel look more ridiculous, grocery store parking lots and trailheads are reliably more packed. An impromptu dinner out on the town has been undeniably harder to execute.
Those aren’t just exasperated gripes from cantankerous locals who want the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s splendors for themselves. Real data shows that summer 2021 has been way busier than any other time in the last five years, a period that was the busiest in the history of Jackson Hole.
A Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board-funded service that tracks numbers of tourists in town limits based on cellphone data shows that there have been 50,000-plus visitors every day so far in July. Those numbers represent large leaps over any other time on record, as much as 50% daily increases.
“People feel it,” said Brian Modena, a marketing professional who recently came off the tourism board. “I tried to take my son the other day to go get ice cream on a Tuesday. Moo’s was closed from having no staff, and the Haagen-Dazs line was over an hour long.”
“You’ve got to ask yourself: ‘Is it worth living in a place where you can’t even get ice cream with your kids?’ ” he said.
Former Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce Director Suzanne Young said it’s hard to believe there was an era when people like herself were actually trying to attract more people to northwest Wyoming. The quality of life for residents during peak summer, she said, has clearly taken a hit.
“Now, it’s overwhelming,” said Young, who anticipates having to move away soon, after a 41-year run, due to the cost of living. “I just don’t go anywhere in a car after 4 o’clock. When I go to the supermarket, the items I go to get are often gone if I don’t go early in the day.”
The estimates of visitors to the town of Jackson are produced by a firm called Placer.ai, which uses an algorithm that builds off numbers of cellphones detected in an area daily. While the numbers may not be perfect, Modena said the comparison to previous years is an accurate depiction of growth in tourist numbers.
Other metrics used to track tourism to the region jibe with the Placer.ai estimates.
Yellowstone National Park builds its visitor figures based off of the numbers and types of vehicles coming through the park’s five entrances. This week, park officials released numbers showing they just endured their busiest-ever June. There were nearly 940,000 visitors that month, a 64% increase from the COVID-19-influenced June of 2020 and a 20% jump from Yellowstone’s June 2019 numbers.
Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board Executive Director Kate Sollitt said the increases she’s seeing are “pretty staggering.”
“For example, July 5 through July 11 in 2021, we had 381,000 people in our community,” Sollitt said. “That was up 30.5% from the same week in 2019, and I’m looking at 2019 because last year was an anomaly.”
Both Modena and Sollitt made the point that deterring tourists from coming in such numbers during summer will be a challenge. Yellowstone and Grand Teton aren’t yet considering visitation caps, and those national parks are undoubtably the largest attractant to the region this time of year.
“There’s not like a spigot we can just turn off,” Modena said.
But Sollitt emphasized that the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board is pivoting away from pure tourist promotion and toward peak-season tourist “management.” The heat has been on for three years to make that change, she said, and a next step is to develop a destination management plan, which her board has already funded.
“This community has always depended on tourism, and yet we’ve never had a tourism management plan,” Sollitt said. “I think we as a community have a real opportunity to, first, gain insight, and from that, hopefully, create a plan to better manage our destination.”