Wyoming tourism forecasters expect a strong summer season, despite rising gas prices, as the state readies for the Memorial Day onslaught.
The American Automobile Association lowered its Memorial Day weekend forecast last week, reducing its prediction from 42 million travelers nationwide to 37 million. The May 21 downgrade from an expected 5 percent increase over last year’s numbers followed a 12-cent-a-gallon climb in gas prices for the previous 14 days, AAA reported.
In Wyoming, gas prices jumped 5 cents a gallon during the two-week period, in line with increases in Colorado and Montana. Utah and Idaho travelers will face more significant jumps.
Those two Wyoming neighbors “continue to make an appearance on the Top 10 list of states with the most expensive gas price averages on the week,” AAA wrote. “They also land on the Top 10 list with the largest year-over-year difference in gas price averages. Utah (+71 cents) leads the nation and Idaho (+61 cents) ranks 10th.”
Nationwide, gas prices average $2.93 a gallon, “the highest price point going into the Memorial Day weekend since 2014,” the association reported. At end of last month the average gallon of regular in Wyoming cost $2.87, up from $2.35 a year ago.
But that shouldn’t deter tourism too much said Bill Sutherland, senior vice president of AAA Travel and Publishing. “A strong economy and growing consumer confidence are giving Americans all the motivation they need to kick off what we expect to be a busy summer travel season with a Memorial Day getaway,” he said on the AAA website.
Advanced bookings in Jackson Hole — a gateway destination for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks — reflect the positive AAA outlook. Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce figures show a 4 percent increase in hotel bookings for Friday, with smaller or no increases for the rest of the weekend.
“Rolling into the weekend  is looking stronger than last year,” said Anna Olson, executive director of the Jackson Hole Chamber. The trend could continue.
“It’s certainly indicative of what we’re seeing for June,” she said. “I anticipate June will come in ahead of last year.”
At the Wyoming Office of Tourism, PR and Media Manager Tia Troy said travelers won’t yet be affected much by the higher gas prices.
“I think a lot of travelers prepare for that kind of thing,” she said. A pinch could come if prices reach $4 a gallon, Troy said. “At this point I wouldn’t say we’ve reached a cap for gas prices having an impact on travel.”
Eclipsed by 2017?
It may be unfair to compare the heart of the 2018 season to 2017 when the Great American Eclipse crossed the entire state Aug. 21. Advanced bookings for that month in Jackson Hole are off 14 percent from last year, predictably, Olson said.
“That’s because the eclipse had early bookers,” she said. “My forecast is we will fill [hotels and motels] in August and fill [them] in July.”
Talking with statewide industry colleagues, Olson said they are looking at a strong summer. But she warned that at least in Teton County “we [have] work to do in August and September.”
Before the eclipse summer, the national parks centennial boosted Wyoming tourism in 2016. While it may be difficult to sustain the business stimulated by back-to-back events, both have ripple effects.
More than 40 percent of eclipse travelers said they wanted to come back to the Equality State, Troy said. “It really put a massive spotlight on Wyoming,” she said.
“Nearly 44 percent of the people who took our survey said they would come back in the next two years,” she said. Growth from eclipse viewers will continue “for many years to come.”
National parks also bring resiliency, Olson said. “There’s a whole new pool of people who will come,” she said, including from overseas. Yellowstone is “in that global spotlight,” she said.
Wyoming’s 2018 campaign spends $5.2 million
Wyoming will spend $5.2 million promoting tourism in 2018, according to the state tourism office. The campaign targets Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Portland, Salt Lake City and Seattle, among other cities.
The “That’s WY” campaign, now in its third year, will cater to adventure lovers, family travelers and those interested in Western culture, the office said in February when it announced the year’s program.
The second largest industry in the state generated $3.5 billion in domestic and international visitor spending in 2017, the WOT said in an economic impact analysis report. Fully 8.7 million overnight visitors generated $188 million in local and state taxes, the report said. The industry supported 32,120 full- and part-time jobs, offsetting $804 in taxes per Wyoming household.
Across the state, Teton County garnered the largest single share of the revenue, collecting $1.17 billion in travel spending last year. Park County, which claimed the second largest share, saw $418 million in revenue. Niobrara County was at the bottom of the list with $12.5 million in travel-related revenue.