BUFFALO — It wasn’t quite the tourism season local business owners expected.
After a record season in Johnson County in 2021 in the wake of COVID-19, flooding in Yellowstone National Park and the park’s subsequent closure threw travel plans into disarray and threatened to derail tourism in the area.
But while business owners said Yellowstone’s brief closure had a definite impact, tourism remained strong.
“I think that there’s been a significant amount of people traveling this year,” said David Stewart, owner of the Historic Occidental Hotel and Blue Gables Motel. “I mean, it’s not a blowout, but it’s definitely been a good season.”
In mid-June, when officials evacuated Yellowstone National Park and shut its gates in the face of massive flooding, local hotels and campgrounds saw a raft of cancellations. Two months on, business owners said walk-in customers have largely made up for those cancellations, though not entirely.
Stewart said that the Occidental — a “destination” stop that often attracts repeat visitors — was able to carry on largely as normal, while Blue Gables saw a decrease from the previous year.
Likewise, traffic at the Deer Park Campground has been down compared with last year, said Ann Kavanagh, the campground’s owner.
“We did lose a lot of previous reservations for that period, because people were running scared and afraid they wouldn’t be able to get in somewhere else,” Kavanagh said.
The story was the same across the state, where hotel room demand was down 10% and hotel revenue was down almost 18%, according to the Wyoming Office of Tourism.
“This large decrease in June correlates with the drop in visitation to Yellowstone caused by the flooding,” wrote Piper Singer Cunningham, communications manager for the tourism office, in an email to the Bulletin.
Yellowstone was expecting a banner year with 150th anniversary events planned throughout the summer. The 150th anniversary came on the heels of a record year in 2021, when almost 4.9 million people visited.
Buffalo is a popular stop between the Black Hills and Yellowstone and often sees visitors heading in that direction.
But in June of this year — the month of the flooding — Yellowstone’s visitation fell by 43% compared with June 2021. By July, most of the park was open, yet the number of visitors fell by half, from almost 1.3 million in 2021 to about 650,000 in 2022.
That hasn’t necessarily led to the downfall of local tourism, though.
“We don’t even hear about Yellowstone now, and the people coming in now, most of them aren’t even concerned because they weren’t planning to go there anyway,” Kavanagh said. “There’s a lot of Wyoming that people come to see that doesn’t involve Yellowstone.”
While this summer still felt busy — especially with the COVID- 19 summer of 2020 still fresh in people’s minds — sales were noticeably down at the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum, said Sylvia Bruner, the museum’s director.
In July, the museum store made $9,076 in sales. That’s more than in July 2020, when the store made $8,255, but almost $2,000 less than the 2021 banner year, as well as $1,000 less than 2019, before the pandemic.
Bruner attributed the decline to Yellowstone’s closure and said she’d heard from other attractions in the area that their sales were similarly affected.
“I suspect it’s a pretty broad effect for tourism in general, but it’s definitely a bummer,” she said.
One bright spot was the northern border’s reopening.
Passage into and out of Canada was severely restricted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but travel has begun to pick up again. Business owners reported an abnormally large number of Canadians visiting Buffalo this summer.
Montana’s border crossings registered more than 170,000 people traveling into the U.S. from Canada in June and July of this year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That’s compared to fewer than 20,000 in June and July of 2021.
Longmire Day’s in-person return was also a shot in the arm for local tourism.
Jennifer McCormick, executive director of the Longmire Foundation, previously told the Bulletin that around 2,000 people traveled to Buffalo to enjoy the annual celebration of the Longmire book series and television series, the first time since 2019 the event wasn’t virtual.
Business owners said they appreciated that extra business.
“Anytime you have an event like that, it makes a difference,” Stewart said. “I’m thankful for the Longmire crowd that comes.”