EDITORIAL: Tourism worth investing in — but it’s a balance

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Wyomingites often have a love-hate relationship with tourists.

When we hear about all of the money travelers are spending here — more than $3.5 billion last year alone — we welcome out-of-state and international visitors. But that welcome can quickly wear out when sitting in a traffic jam in Yellowstone National Park as tourists flock to see wildlife alongside the road.

Wyomingites also can be wary of an influx of people visiting and then deciding to move here. Many of us love the rural nature of our state and don’t want to see that change with a sudden increase in development.

Longtime residents worry about shifts in culture that could arrive with more newcomers. An old bumper sticker still stuck on some vehicles sums up that sentiment: “Welcome to Wyoming. Now take a wolf and go home.”

Those controversial wolves, grizzlies and other wildlife roaming in our stunning mountain landscapes draw huge crowds to Wyoming each year. With Yellowstone in our breathtakingly beautiful corner of the state, we see more visitors in Park County than many parts of Wyoming.

Since 2015, Yellowstone’s annual visitation has topped 4 million. Local and regional officials wonder if some of those visitors could be encouraged to also visit Cody, Bighorn Canyon and other surrounding areas to help ease traffic congestion in the park.

We’re glad that the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee is considering that option, particularly because it fits with Cody’s and Wyoming’s continual efforts to boost our tourism industry.

Cody is currently in the running for the title of America’s “Best Historic Small Town.” In a contest on USA Today’s travel website, 10Best.com, Cody ranks No. 6 with less than two weeks left to go for voting.

Meanwhile, the statewide “That’s WY” campaign targeting travelers appears to be gaining steam. Requests for vacation guides at the Wyoming Office of Tourism are up 75 percent from last year, according to the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.

As the second largest industry in Wyoming, tourism is an important economic driver for Park County as well as other communities across the state.

From 2016 to 2017, the Cowboy State’s travel, tourism and hospitality industry saw a nearly 9 percent increase in visitor spending, reaching over $3.5 billion. Last August’s rare solar eclipse is partly to thank for the influx, as over 250,000 visitors came to Wyoming for the rare celestial event.

“Without the solar eclipse, we still saw a 6.9 percent increase in spending, and that is a very healthy increase,” said Office of Tourism media manager Tia Troy in a Wyoming Tribune-Eagle article. “This increase helps every Wyoming community and, really, every Wyoming resident.”

In recent years, tourism was a bright spot amid dark spells in the energy sector — though wages for hospitality workers generally don’t compare to the high-paying jobs in the oil or gas industry.

While no one expects tourism to replace the revenue brought in by oil, coal or gas, tourism is a growing industry that’s worth investing in for Wyoming.

State lawmakers are considering how to capitalize on tourists’ dollars. A recent proposal for a statewide lodging tax would have generated more funding for the state’s general fund and local governments, but failed in the 2018 legislative session. A proposed leisure and hospitality tax also failed. We should expect support for these statewide taxation efforts are not dead and will resurface in ongoing discussions led by the tourism industry.

As state leaders look to diversify Wyoming’s economy and broaden the tax base, tourism is an obvious area to target. We encourage a thoughtful approach that involves leaders in the tourism industry as well as local communities, because there is the potential for negative side effects.

One main concern is how increased traffic could affect backcountry roads if more travelers head to Sunlight Basin or the South Fork.

“They’re tearing up our roads if we increase the traffic,” said Park County Commissioner Tim French on Tuesday.

Wyoming and Park County need to be able to accommodate an influx of tourists coming here while also striving to maintain the rural and wild beauty of our landscape. The wide-open spaces that draw crowds of visitors are the same wide-open spaces that keep many residents here. It’s a tough balance to strike: How to enjoy the economic benefits of more travelers’ dollars without significantly altering the state’s infrastructure or natural and cultural landscapes.

In 1925, a young visitor from New Jersey penned the now famous line: “God bless Wyoming and keep it wild.”

We hope it’s a mantra state leaders keep in mind as they look to benefit from Wyoming’s growing tourism industry.

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