Gateway town economies thrive on park visitors

By DANIELLE MARTIN/Montana State News

Residents of West Yellowstone know more than most how important the national park is for their community.

“Tourism is basically our entire economy … Yellowstone Park is essential to our business[es] and services,” said Wendy Swenson, marketing director for the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.

According to a press release issued last week by the National Park Service, national parks drew 273.6 million visitors in 2013.

“From families creating once-in-a-lifetime vacation memories to school children exploring a national park in their own backyard, the National Park Service welcomed more than a quarter of a billion visitors last year,” said Jonathan Jarvis National Park Service director.

The national park online statistical database reports that 3.1 million people visited Yellowstone National Park last year, and 2.1 million visited Glacier National Park.

Yellowstone is listed as the No. 4 most visited park in the United States of the “401 parks, historic sites, and recreation areas that make up the National Park System,” according to the press release. Glacier National Park is ranked 10th based on these visitation numbers.

The popularity of these destinations means millions of tourists traveling through Montana in the summer as well as the winter creating jobs and revenue for local businesses, and not just in West Yellowstone but in all national park gateway communities.

These communities provide amenities and activities such as lodging, dining, shopping and scenery for tourists passing through to the parks.

While 2013 numbers have not been tabulated yet, the National Park Service calculates that park visitors “generated $26.75 billion in economic activity and supported 242,000 jobs in 2012” just in these park gateway communities.

According to the press release, the figures “are based on spending by nearly 283 million visitors in communities near national parks in 2012. An in-depth analysis of the 2012 figures found an increase in local visitor spending and a correlating increase in economic activity and jobs in local communities.”

Of the 3.1 million visitors to Yellowstone, Swenson said that 1.26 million people passed through the west gate of the park in 2013, roughly 40 percent.

She said, “their average stay is two nights” and the “average spent per person is $71 per day.”

That translates into about $178 million in spending in the community of West Yellowstone in 2013.

“Nearly 100 percent of our jobs are reliant on Yellowstone tourism in one way or another,” said Swenson.

Due to its reliance on park tourist dollars, the government shutdown of last October had a major impact on the West Yellowstone economy.

“Nearly all businesses were affected in one way or another. West Yellowstone lost approximately $2 million in revenue during the shutdown.” This caused many of the smaller businesses to close early for the season, laying off their workers or cutting their hours, Swenson said.

The National Park Service press release states that “7.88 million visitors were turned away during those two weeks,” which led to a 3 percent drop in visitation from 2012. “These closures had a real impact on local businesses and communities,” Jarvis said.

Despite this setback West Yellowstone residents are optimistic about the upcoming tourist season.

“Our community is optimistic about its future,” said Swenson. “West has so much to offer year-round that there is always something to discover and experience.”

Tiffany Wichman a Bozeman native and employee in the local hospitality industry is also optimistic about future park tourism. She said, “because I’m from here, to me it’s just the park, but by working in hospitality I’ve seen the value of it. I’ve definitely taken it for granted, but when you see people from China or Europe get all excited about it, it just reminds you of how popular it is.”


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