CODY — The closing of Yellowstone National Park on June 13 due to flooding caused tourists to scramble for new plans and created challenges for local businesses.
Three of the five park’s entrances have now reopened, helping tourism to rebound and some businesses to recover. But many business owners remain concerned about the impact gas, food and travel prices, and other issues will have on this year’s tourist season.
“The first three days after the flood, we were seeing a thousand people a day through our visitor center,” said Tina Hoebelheinrich, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. “We were probably 50 percent over our normal rate, [but] those crowds have quieted down.”
And the chamber isn’t seeing as much confusion about park closures among visitors.
“We’re just making sure that people understand how much of the park is available,” Hoebelheinrich said.
During the park’s closure, the chamber actively monitored hotels to see where they could steer visitors who needed a place to stay.
“There really hasn’t been a need to go back to monitoring [hotels],” Hoebelheinrich said. “But my insight tells me our hotels do have vacancies.”
Brenda O’Shea, owner of A Western Rose Motel, didn’t have many cancellations during the closure of the park because of her nonrefundable policy.
“But my fellow managers at other properties who do allow cancellations are down hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said.
Even though the park has mostly reopened, O’Shea is dealing with vacancies.
“I am usually half-booked at this time of the year, if not more,” she said. “But I am now like a tumbleweed blowing in the wind.”
O’Shea is grateful that the park reopened in a timely manner but remains concerned about limited tourism this year.
“With outrageous airline fares, inflated gas prices in Cody and the flood of 2022, it has nearly crushed us and the surrounding areas,” she said. “Of course, I have concerns over the lack of people visiting the area, but that’s Wyoming tourism.”
Local businesses that operate on reservations, such as Wyoming River Trips, did deal with cancellations during the initial closure of the park.
“It’s definitely created a situation where we are accommodating more last-minute reservations as opposed to reservations that are further out in our season,” said Landon Blanchard, one of the owners of Wyoming River Trips. “[But] we are seeing reservations pick back up ... [and] move in the right direction.”
Blanchard, though, isn’t concerned about not having enough tourists this season.
“There’s plenty of people coming through the area,” he said.
While Wyoming River Trips saw a decrease in reservations during the park’s closure, local retail stores such as the Wyoming Buffalo Company saw an increase in visitors.
“The initial closure kept people in Cody for a few extra days,” said Lisa del Valle, owner of Wyoming Buffalo Company. “We saw more tourists [and] gained business during the initial closure weekend.”
She was pleasantly surprised at the quick reopening of the park, but she too has concerns.
“My store has returned to what I expected for the year,” del Valle said. “But it’s my opinion that the traffic is going to be down this year because of gas prices, food prices and an overall wonder about how our country is changing and not knowing what to expect.”
Hoebelheinrich said it will take time for businesses and tourists to adjust to the reopening.
“I know it seems like forever. It’s like we’re living in dog years,” Hoebelheinrich said. “[But] we need to give the system a chance to work.”
And in the meantime, tourists can enjoy Cody’s other attractions.
“For the folks who may have to shift their plans a bit ... we’re so blessed to live in Cody because there’s so much to do here,” Hoebelheinrich said. “If you gave a family an extra day, they literally have 30 choices of things they could do with that day ... [and] that makes it easy to pivot here [in Cody].”
For Blanchard, the park’s closure and reopening have offered local businesses a chance to pivot as well.
“When entire communities and industries are immediately affected by this kind of natural phenomenon, it will ultimately change how local businesses maybe do business,” he said. “For us, it’s making sure we diversify our offerings so we’re not reliant on one stretch of river or one road.”
“It’s moving towards new opportunities so that if stuff like this happens in the future, all of our eggs aren’t in the proverbial basket,” Blanchard added.
For del Valle, dealing with the unexpected is simply a part of operating a business.
“Owning a business is never easy,” she said. “Making adjustments when storms come is just a part of life.”