The Welcome to Wyoming sign shines in the sun Wednesday, March 18, 2020, on Interstate 25 northbound south of Cheyenne. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Given Wyoming just had its first confirmed case about 10 days ago, it will likely be months before the full economic effects of the coronavirus come to light.

But as businesses worldwide attempt to adjust to rapid societal changes, one of Wyoming’s key industries could be impacted in an outsized way.

While it doesn’t provide nearly as much tax revenue to the state as energy sectors, tourism is Wyoming’s largest private-sector employer, with over 20,000 jobs in the wide-ranging industry.

With global demand for air travel dropping drastically, the Wyoming Office of Tourism is making short-term adjustments to address the market changes. While the office will keep funding certain analytics tools, Director Diane Shober said the state has temporarily halted most of its national advertising campaign.

“Certainly, when we’re on the other side of this, we hope that people will be anxious to get out and travel,” Shober said. “But it isn’t appropriate to do it right now, nor would it be a good investment of money ... people just aren’t in that travel planning phase.”

Shober was hopeful the market campaign might revamp by May, but she acknowledged the timeline is fluid.

“By 1:30, I would maybe have a different answer for you,” she quipped.

In Laramie County, about 4,000 people have jobs in tourism-related industries. Visit Cheyenne CEO Domenic Bravo said his office’s top priority right now is to ensure small businesses and their employees have the resources they need.

“As soon as we come back out of isolation, we need to make sure that our neighbors are surviving,” Bravo said.

While the virus’s toll on tourism jobs in Wyoming remains to be seen, early indications are grim. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services didn’t have any updated statewide numbers to report last week, but department spokesman Ty Stockton said there has been an increase in people filing for unemployment claims – with some waiting on the phone for more than an hour to make a claim.

While one hopes a pandemic never happens, its timing for Wyoming tourism – coming after the main months for winter sports, but before the peak summer season – is about the best one could hope for.

“Luckily, right now, it’s just a slower season for travel coming to Wyoming, so we all hope by the travel season in May or June, hopefully this is close to the end,” state chief economist Wenlin Liu said.

Compared to the state’s oil industry, which is facing a plummeting global market, the state’s tourism industry faces fewer headwinds. While Cheyenne Regional Airport plans to indefinitely suspend flights starting next month, Liu noted Wyoming’s tourism industry has never been as dependent on air travel as other states.

Yet reduced international travel could still put a dent in the state’s tourism activities. For example, more than 15% of visitors to Yellowstone National Park are international travelers.

Tourism brings in more than $100 million annually in sales tax revenue to the state – roughly 10% of the state’s overall revenue from sales taxes – but Liu argued the industry is more crucial for its job creation.

“If things slow down or there are layoffs, it has a big impact on the economy, on many families,” he said.

Looking ahead, Liu said many economists are split on whether the market slowdown of the last couple weeks signifies a downturn as bad as the 2008 recession, but one thing is clear: The more severe the virus becomes, the worse such a downturn could be.

“Right before this, our national economy was quite strong, with the lowest unemployment in more than 30 years,” Liu said. “We’re just still not sure how long (the virus) is going to last, whether it’s three weeks or three more months.”

If the economy regains some stability in the coming months, tourism officials are optimistic people post-quarantine will be itching to explore Wyoming’s sprawling scenery.

“We’re hoping that we come out of this within a few weeks and try to have a decent tourism industry this summer,” Bravo said. “There’s just a lot of history and Western culture that people around the world love to come visit us for.”

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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