The Saratoga Sun -

Local tourism saves 2020

With international travel stalled, tourists looked for something closer to home last year


January 27, 2021

Mike Armstrong

CCVC CEO Leslie Jefferson is optimistic about the future of tourism in Carbon County.

International tourism took a hit in 2020 as a global pandemic brought travel to a halt and countries issued stay-at-home orders.

In the United States, residents looked for places they could escape to without flying. Wyoming became a destination in the summer for many from out-of-state, although many events were cancelled or reduced in size. Carbon County scaled down many activities it had, but many tourists still came to visit the county due to the great outdoors and recreation opportunities that encouraged social distancing.

Leslie Jefferson, CEO of the Carbon County Visitors Council (CCVC), doesn't see a lot changing as far as who will be visiting the county in the near future.

"I forsee that tourism is going to be more of a drive market this coming year, like it was last year," Jefferson said. "We will focus our advertising to people from 10 to 14 hours away."

Jefferson said she thinks parts of Wyoming have done a good job salvaging the past year.

"Teton County has been phenomenal with its job market and accommodations," Jefferson said. "The southern part of the state has done well, all things being considered, but we are about 25 percent down for the total year. Looking ahead to the summer season, I believe that Wyoming will have many visitors. Carbon County faired very well considering the COVID-19 pandemic."

Jefferson said that she sees a lot more people camping and investing in Recreational Vehicles (RVs).

"This past summer we saw a lot more camping and the ranches outside the municipal areas did pretty well. They held their own," Jefferson said. "There are definitely people looking for that exclusive stay, but as far as hotels, they were down. B&Bs (bed and breakfast) went up. Occupancy actually had a solid percent hike in our rooms available, which means more people are renting out their homes as Airbnbs, private rentals, whether by the room or the entire home. Carbon County had an increase over 25 percent in occupancy, a 23 percent increase in revenue per available room. As I mentioned, hotels didn't fair as well as private rentals, however, but not as bad as some areas of Wyoming. Hotels ended with a 22.9 percent decrease in occupancy and a 29.1 percent decrease in revenue per available room."

CCVC Saratoga representative Danny Burau thinks Airbnb is going to be more important to the tourism market and Carbon County. He said it started with a younger generation wanting to have an experience when vacationing.

"There were trends already happening with young families moving back to road tripping; that has been coming on for the last five to eight years," Burau said. "They are getting away from distance traveling and flying places, which can be really complicated with young kids."

He said these families are getting on the road to see the country and that the RV business was starting to increase a few years back.

"With those trends already in play, when COVID hit the country, people had a real reason and justification to want control of how many people are around them," Burau explained. "I see road tripping to continue to grow over the next several years and I think Carbon County is ideal with I-80 cutting through it with roads right off it that have many places for a family to explore without much difficulty."

He said what Carbon County offers for visitors meets the trend that was starting and that the county was already benefitting.

"I think controlling your own environment was already happening before COVID pushed it even stronger," Burau said. "I think there is a revelation with a lot of young people that they don't want to sit behind a computer all their lives, and COVID has pushed the computer world so strongly, that the reaction is that these people want to be outside every chance they can get. Students are studying Thoreau again in a way that my generation didn't. They want the experience of being in nature."

He said the constant push of social media in people's lives has caused stress and, with so many people having to sit in front of their screen and not getting their hands dirty, it has created a desire to spend more time outdoors.

"I think a lot of things were already lined up for people to enjoy the outdoors when they can and COVID gave it that push, especially planning a vacation," Burau said. "Carbon County is close for a lot of people to get away from it all and we have a lot of recreation to choose from."

Burau said that this is where Carbon County stands to really benefit.

"A lot of people don't know Carbon County is what they are looking for," Burau said. "We just have to let them know it is here. That is what the Visitors Council is trying to do."

Burau hopes that some of the visitors fall in love with Carbon County and decide to move to it.

"Economic development is key for our county," Burau said. "We need new types of economic development coming and we need young entrepreneurial minds here, emphasizing the access to the outdoors and freedom that everyone used to think that Colorado used to have. I truly believe you have to embrace." You are either growing or you are dying and tourism gives us an opportunity not to die."

He believes Airbnbs are changing the experience for young families too. Burau said that traveling on the road is one part of the experience, but so is staying in a locale. It gives visitors and potencial residents a chance to know an area much better than staying in a hotel.

"It may not always be luxurious, but it gives off a different vibe than a hotel," Burau said. "From what I can see there seems to be a lot of open housing in Saratoga and Airbnb is definitely tapping into the young audience."

Burau said it is a way to grow tourism without huge investment.

"Massive, expensive hotels don't have to be built to accommodate the influx of visitors that come," Burau said. "Individuals can make extra money renting out rooms and homes and then Carbon County has more people staying and spending money than when all hotel rooms are maxed out and these people have no place to stay."

He said Airbnbs are an excellent way to expand the opportunity for tourists to stay in towns in Carbon County.

"When we came here (five years ago) we did a search and four came up," Burau said. "The next summer we came up and there were 12. I am sure there are more now. I think it is a great mechanism for tourism in this county."

Although Jefferson agrees with Burau that camping and Airbnbs are changing how tourism is trending, she said that hotels don't have to give up hope that times will stay bad. She believes some people feel safer in hotels because of the protocols that are standard in cleaning a room.

"It does depend on what you are used to and what makes you feel secure," Jefferson said. "You know the standard in a hotel and that gives some people comfort."

Jefferson said southern Wyoming is in a better position to recover from the pandemic in the summer because the state has a lot more space and the population is small. Even before COVID-19 took its toll, Jefferson said places in Colorado like Aspen, where people flocked to, are getting so congested and it is losing appeal to those that want to be in touch with nature.

"When it comes to outdoors and recreation here in Carbon County, we really can say to people visiting,' what are you looking for?'" Jefferson commented. "When people ask me where to go to in Carbon County, I tell them to go everywhere."

Mike Armstrong

Elk Mountain is one of the many gems to see in Carbon County.

She said the Platte Valley is always popular and the Little Snake River Valley is getting more attention.

"One place that fishing guides in Carbon County seem to be promoting is 'Miracle Mile' as one of their places to go to," Jefferson said. "And their tag line is that it is the same mileage from towns in Carbon County to 'Miracle Mile' as it is from Alcova. So I am excited about that, because we get a lot of calls that come in and they want a fishing guide for 'Miracle Mile' and, before, we didn't have any guides committed fully to going there until this year."

Jefferson and Burau both agree that Carbon County is a special place in the tourism world and it is not surprising that visitors that do discover it very often want to come back.

Some, like Burau, decide to stay, open a business and raise a family.


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