Evidence continues to pile up of an unprecedented onslaught of people pouring into Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this summer.
The latest metric that suggests 2021 tourism is poised to break all prior records comes from cellphone data being tracked and analyzed by a firm called Placer.ai.
Using the service’s algorithms that build off numbers of cellphones detected in an area daily, there have been more tourists in the town of Jackson every day since May 19 than there were during the same days in 2017, ’18, ’19 and ’20 — years that routinely set visitation records.
“Leading up to Memorial weekend, it just kind of blasted off,” said Brian Modena, who monitors the data as part of his role on the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board.
Tourist volumes in town the last week of May were akin to crowds more typical of the mid- or late June, going by the cellphone data estimates.
On Memorial Day, for example, there were nearly 34,000 visitors estimated within town limits. That’s a 60% increase over the five-year average for May 31.
But it’s not a one-day blip.
Starting on May 27, tourism in town surged 50% above the five-year average for six consecutive days. For a visual, picture three people standing in any one space; historically, there were just two.
Land managers and the business community have been bracing for a record summer, which has been forecasted for months by lodging occupancy estimates and other tourism metrics.
The busiest summer Jackson Hole has ever seen — if projections pan out — was preceded by record fall 2020 visitation and a record-smashing April.
Near-capacity hotels, lodges and short-term rentals are part of normal summer life in modern Jackson Hole. What’s new is that the busiest parts of the year are stretching into early June and even May.
That’s one insight Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce President Anna Olson gained from reviewing straw poll data that provides previews of the percentage of beds spoken for in the valley.
Data give a 92% occupancy rate for the coming weekend, and June 11-12 is already at 90% occupancy.
Comparatively, monthlong occupancy in June of 2019 was only 84%.
“We’re at 90%, so it’s going to be hard to find a room,” Olson said. “You need a reservation. That is how you need to travel now.
“The road trip without a plan, if it includes the national parks, is already becoming a thing of the past,” Olson concluded.
This year, Grand Teton National Park did away with all of its day-of campsites. Yellowstone National Park did the same with many of its campgrounds and now makes just 166 campsites available without a reservation.
Essentially all the reservations to camp have already been swooped up for the balance of summer. Hotel rooms are largely gone, too.
A completely full Jackson Hole has Modena starting to look at the spillover effect and what cellphone data has to say about visitation trends in neighboring communities like Dubois and Pinedale. Results of his inquiry are pending.
The uptick in early-summer tourism coincides with a push from the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board to funnel some of its bed tax-funded budget toward managing tourists, rather than pushing for more to come.
This year the board is proposing to spend $1 million — about 15% of its funds — on campaigns that have been dubbed “Know Before You Go” and “Wild Rules.”
Using tactics like outdoor billboards, social media and blogs, the board wants to educate visitors about sustainable tourism and trip planning in hopes of easing impacts on the valley.
In the meantime, the hot tourism market coupled with a dearth of employees across many job sectors is causing a major strain even on the businesses that stand to benefit the most from a wave of tourists.
Olson is hopeful that the community can make the best of it.
“Ramping up quickly in May is new for us,” Olson said.
But with some strategic planning, she added, having longer busy seasons could be better for Jackson Hole.