Cody looks to summer tourism season, braces for rising gas prices

Apr 27, 2012

Analysts are making conflicting predictions about where gas prices will go this summer. Some are forecasting record highs, while others say prices at the pump have already peaked. Businesses in Wyoming’s service industry hope for the latter, as they depend on an injection of tourism dollars each summer. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez spoke with several businesses near Yellowstone about what might happen if gas prices climb with the temperature.

REBECCA MARTINEZ: Every summer, a healthy stream of tourists passes through Cody into Yellowstone National Park. They stop to eat, shop and pay homage to Buffalo Bill on their way into the wilderness. Scott Balyo, who directs the Cody Chamber of Commerce, says this year should be no different.

SCOTT BALYO: As I talk to our members, we’re seeing good bookings in hotels, good bookings in the park.

MARTINEZ: But it’s still early in the travel year. Recent projections of high gas prices have caused a stir in the travel industry. For the last 7 years, gas prices have climbed an average of 93-cents-per-gallon from the start of the year to the peak of prices, usually around Memorial Day. That’s according to the petroleum analysts at GasBuddy-dot-com. If their predictions come true, the national average could reach four-dollars-and-twenty-cents per gallon this summer, even five dollars in some parts of the country. Though some motorists might find these costs prohibitive, Balyo isn’t worried. Yellowstone is still an incredibly popular destination, and most people coming from far away have already booked flights and rooms in advance.

BALYO: As people look at their spending, vacations are one of the last things that they’re willing to cut. And a lot of that is…. Maybe an emotional response. The fact that it’s time with family, people really value it.

MARTINEZ: Tara Jones of Triple-A Mountain West says it’s premature to worry about record-high gas prices, since so many things could affect the crude oil market before Memorial Day. But current trends show that gas is cheaper this year than last, and prices at the pump have actually been declining in recent weeks. Still, Jones says anything can happen.

TARA JONES: Motorists will consider the price of gas in their budgeting in their expenses… And if they have to cut down on other expenses, like food and entertainment, they will do that.

MARTINEZ: So, it sounds like hotels are pretty safe. But what about retail? Wes Allen owns Sunlight Sports, an outdoor equipment shop in Cody. He says good summer business from tourists means Cody residents make more money, and thus circulate more of it around town during the off-season. He says record high gas prices would be a cause for concern.

WES ALLEN:  Let’s say that you’re walking up and down Main Street, and maybe you want a new water bottle, because you’re really thirsty riding around in your car ‘cause it’s 105 degrees outside. That water bottle may be 15 bucks. If you just spent $30 more than maybe you should have on a tank of gas, that’ll make your $15 purchase a lot less attractive, and probably, you know there’s a chance that you won’t buy it.
MARTINEZ: Even so, Allen says Sunlight Sports is still pretty safe, since they offer advice and equipment for outdoor adventurers bound for Yellowstone. He said he’d be worried if he owned a restaurant, since the gas-pump-pinch would mean less money for customers to spend on desserts and drinks… Jessica Cobourn, who manages the Wyoming Rib and Chop House a few block away, says, not necessarily. The restaurant is always busy in the summer, regardless of what customers are ordering.

JESSICA COBOURN: Sat they come in and they skip the appetizer. And then, if they skip dessert, they’re more apt to stay for a less amount of time than if they would if they were to get all of the courses.
MARTINEZ: And, why would that be a good thing in the summer time?
COBOURN: Then we could fill those seats again.

MARTINEZ: Shops and restaurants are hopeful that if a healthy flow of visitors passes through Cody this summer, they can avoid a drop-off in business. And if gas prices do jump, chances are better that tourism dollars will come from another source: Visitors from within the region hoping to make the most of a vacation closer to home. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.