Yellowstone visits track with gas prices

By ANNIE WASSAN and JENNY BRYAN/ Montana State News

Yellowstone National Park witnessed record visitation in 2015, and the trend is expected to continue into 2016 and beyond.

In 2015, Yellowstone National Park had just over 4 million visitors, according to its website. That was almost 600,000 more tourists than the year before.

The year 2015 also had the second lowest gas prices in the last 10 years. Only 2009 saw lower prices, a year in which Yellowstone also enjoyed a dramatic increase in visitors.  2009 was among the ten highest visitation years at the Park, while the year before was not.

It appears that gasoline prices are only one contributing factor in these numbers, however.

According to Yellowstone’s website, previous to 2007 the last record-breaking year for attendance was back in 1992.  In fact, the only year since 2007 to not make Yellowstone’s list of the top 10 years of visitation is 2008.

Norma Nickerson from the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research said, “What we saw in the summer of 2008 when gas prices skyrocketed, our visitation to Montana went down, and spending went down. We did attribute that change to both the gas prices and the recession.”  It is clear to Nickerson that the perception of the overall economy also plays a role in these figures, but not consistently so.

Nickerson stated that there was no definitive data explaining the sudden increase of visitation in 2007.  However she said, “The main thing that comes into play is the baby boomer generation who are either retired or close to that age. That means they have money and time, and all of our studies through the Institute show that the average age to Yellowstone is consistently up in the baby boom age group.”

Because of these recently lowered prices for fuel, according to Nickerson, the number of visitors to Montana has increased, however spending overall has decreased. She said that some purchases went up, however.

Money spent on hotels and local products increased, while gasoline, auto rental, and restaurant expenditures went down.  It would stand to reason that in a lower gas price environment, spending for fuel would go down, which may have played a role in tourists spending more money for pricier accommodations and increasing purchases for local products.

These types of increases would provide more benefit to the local communities than simply paying more at the pump.

These types of findings would appear mirror in large part, trends seen in tourism patterns as a whole. In a recent edition of Journal of Travel Research, information was provided that indicates studies have shown that auto travelers tend to spend more when lower gasoline prices exist.

More importantly, decreases in gas prices have a very strong and significant positive relationship with admissions spending with both in-state and out-of-state travelers, much as has been noted at Yellowstone. These price declines also appear to impact the out-of-state traveler, by stimulating more activities and entertainment dollars.

Yet there are even more factors that contribute to the success of the National Parks besides gas prices being lowered and the baby boomers having more time and disposable income to spend traveling. According to Amy Barlett, a public affairs officer for Yellowstone National Park, there have been large tourism pushes by the state of Montana.

This includes the “Find Your Park” campaign. 2016 marks the centennial year for national parks, and marketing dollars have been spent over the past few years in order to get the word out on this celebration.

The National Park Service’s states, “In celebration of the 100th birthday of the National Park Service in 2016, we are launching a movement to spread the word about the amazing places we manage, the inspirational stories that the national parks tell, our country’s natural resources, and our diverse cultural heritage.”

Yellowstone is preparing for this increase of visitors by “developing a social science program to gather data on visitor experience and demographics so the park can continue to make informed decisions going into the future,” according an article in the Y.

All of these factors appear to add up to quite a positive outlook over the next few years at Yellowstone National Park.

Always use numerals when speaking of millions, billions or trillions, even if it is less than 10.

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