Silently supporting every great road trip is the road itself: Stretching out for miles, black pavement hedged in by green alfalfa fields, blue rivers and snow fences moves visitors from around the world across Wyoming.
Road trips to domestic destinations continue to be the preferred way for many to travel in 2021, according to the American Automobile Association. In 2020, although car trips declined 3% from 2019, they still accounted for 97% of travel as the favored mode of transportation, according to AAA.
“Our infrastructure is how we move visitors from one place to the other. It is essential to everything within this economy, as it is essential to most industries,” said Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism. “We need to be able to move people. Visitors are buying goods and services from Wyoming businesses, and we need to get them from point A to point B, whether it is from Cheyenne to Jackson or Casper to Gillette. Roadways are a very critical part of our economy, and infrastructure and transportation enhancement are essential.”
The Wyoming Department of Transportation is not funded by the state’s general fund, but through a fuel tax, vehicle registration and federal mineral royalties, WYDOT Director Luke Reiner said. The Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee tasked WYDOT with looking for alternate revenue sources during the interim last year, and officials have also examined the effect COVID-19 has had on revenue streams.
In 2020, WYDOT hired consultants with Dye Management Group to do an in-depth study of the department’s needs, and found the current level of unmet need is upward of $350 million across the agency’s entire budget.
Previously, WYDOT had estimated that $135 million would be necessary to preserve the state’s highways as they exist today, but Dye Management found that in addition to construction shortfalls, another $200 million was needed to meet necessary computer system upgrades, communications and Highway Patrol needs, and to properly fund the DMV, aeronautics, fleet equipment, building/facilities and provide survey equipment.
“Infrastructure is certainly important for getting travelers to and around Wyoming. Having transportation infrastructure, in particular, helps support great accessibility to Wyoming’s attractions and overall visitor experience,” Piper Singer, public relations and media manager for the Wyoming Office of Tourism, said.
A 2018 overnight visitor profile study indicated that 68% of travelers drove to Wyoming in a passenger vehicle, 24% flew, and the remainder drove an RV, motorcycle or bus. Of those that flew, 90% rented a car to further explore Wyoming. Drive visitation has remained high over time, and the Wyoming Office of Tourism expects it to remain high through 2021, as driving was considered significantly safer than flying during the pandemic, Singer said. According to the latest data from Longwoods International, an international research firm in the tourism industry, the pandemic continues to cause shifts in travel patterns, with domestic and drive destinations being favored over international and fly-to locations.
“Many travelers who did travel during the pandemic opted to take road trips and explore small towns and outdoor spaces, which led our office into creating WY Responsibly,” Singer said.
WY Responsibly, which will officially launch June 1, is a value-based mission to educate and facilitate responsible travel by being mindful of Wyoming’s natural spaces, wildlife, communities and culture.
“WOT initially launched the campaign in 2020 as a response to COVID-19 by providing safe travel resources and tips to visitors and residents. As a result of the pent-up demand for outdoor adventure, Wyoming experienced high visitation throughout all national forests and parks, state parks and other popular destinations,” Singer said.
The WY Responsibly messaging is being expanded this year to include three main initiatives created with input from 10 national- and state-level outdoor agencies based on concerning behaviors each experienced last summer. These are:
Enjoying natural spaces responsibly, including resources on how to respect the outdoors, camping and trail etiquette, outdoor safety, precautions and best practices.
Co-existing responsibly, with resources on how to respect wildlife, reporting wildlife interactions, fishing guidelines and gear suggestions to prepare for any encounters.
Being a part of a responsible community, including resources on how to respect fellow travelers and locals, including current health guidelines, tips to avoid overcrowding and supporting local businesses.
The Wyoming Office of Tourism will release its 2020 Economic Impact Data report later this month, but from the preliminary data, Wyoming’s travel economy only declined by 23%, whereas the U.S. travel economy declined by 36%.
Last year, Wyoming welcomed 6.9 million overnight visitors, Singer said, and Grand Teton National Park hosted over 3.2 million recreation visits, the fourth-highest number of visits on record. Yellowstone National Park hosted over 3.8 million recreation visitors, down only 5% compared to 2019, and Wyoming State Parks and Historic Sites annual attendance was up 31.8% compared to 2019.
“We get a lot of visitors from all over, and you are going to continue to see demand on our infrastructure,” Shober said. “All across the country, Americans are out and about. The Department of Transportation does a really good job of maintaining our roads and our highways. I know there is a lot of maintenance that goes into them, but what that frees up for me and other travelers is the time to enjoy the scenery. You can see it from the road. That is the best part of it.”
On a recent drive across the state, Shober described a drive through rural Carbon County.
“You can look out and see the whole valley from the road, the North Platte running through Saratoga, this little town. There was a lot of cloud movement, and I love the fact that we have unobstructed viewsheds and can see for miles,” Shober said. “You are on the open road, and there is something really freeing about it.”