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The frustrated tourist stalled in the long bison jam in Yellowstone National Park is more likely to be a repeat visitor, according to a newly released survey.

That’s just one of the findings in Yellowstone’s 2018 Visitor Use Study, which also found the majority of visitors surveyed — 67% — were first-time visitors, and that the longer those first-time visitors stayed in the park, the more frustrated they became by perceived crowding problems.

“I’m quite surprised how well they are willing to accept crowding,” said Jeremy Sage, an economist and associate director of the University of Montana Institute for Tourism Recreation Research, a part of the research team. “As you get more and more experience with it, the newness wears off.”

New study

The National Park Service contracted Otak Inc., RRC Associates and ITRR to conduct the study to help understand how visitors experience the park in real time, across the summer season, and across different parts of the park. More than 4,000 people responded to the surveys, one of the largest in the history of the National Park Service. It was conducted during one week of each month from May through September 2018.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Manny and Monica Valencia of Tuscon, Ariz. pose for a selfie with their children Loeleni and Brielle on the rim of the Lower Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Overall, the picture produced was fairly rosy. Eighty-five percent of respondents thought their experience in the park was good or excellent. The top three reasons for visiting were scenery, wildlife and thermal features — all of which Yellowstone has in great variety.

“I largely credit the National Park Service team and our partners for the high visitor satisfaction levels,” said Superintendent Cam Sholly in a press release. “That said, there is no question that increasing visitation levels are having higher impacts on resources, our staff and infrastructure, and our gateway communities.”

Deal with it

Understanding tourists’ behavior and their satisfaction is important to the Park Service as visitation has steadily climbed in the past 10 years, peaking at 4.2 million in 2016. One problem the survey noted was a greater sense of crowding, traffic congestion and parking availability at Midway Geyser Basin and Fairy Falls. That’s the type of problem the agency may be able to address with new infrastructure.

Fairy Falls

The Fairy Falls trailhead parking lot fills up on a cloudy summer day in Yellowstone National Park. Fairy Falls was one of the places mentioned in the park's survey where crowding was seen as a problem.

The solution to such a problem may be local shuttle systems between Old Faithful to West Yellowstone, Old Faithful to the geyser basin and back, and Canyon Village to various local attractions.

“This study gives us very actionable information on how we can better manage and plan for increasing visitation in Yellowstone,” Sholly said.

Other info

It’s also worth noting that repeat visitors said in the survey they were more likely to want to experience a wild place while in Yellowstone, as opposed to visiting geysers and thermal features that were high on the list of newbies maybe making a quick trip around the Grand Loop.

As Chinese tourism has climbed, the survey also dug into their experiences, noting that they valued being around “considerate people,” wanted to feel safe, and appreciated clean restrooms more than their United States counterparts.

Chinese visitation by tour bus places an unusual demand on park resources, Sage noted, with big surges of tourists.

Bus tourists

Bus tours into Yellowstone have increased in the last few years, many of them carrying Chinese tourists.

“Overall, 92% waited less than 10 minutes to enter the park and 86% waited less than 10 minutes to find parking,” according to a park press release. “Of the more popular sites in the park, respondents rated Old Faithful and Canyon Village the least problematic, probably due to sufficient infrastructure to support a high volume of visitors.”

Survey method

Some of the surveys were conducted in real time, with respondents carrying tablets in their vehicle and addressing prompts when they reached certain locations called geofences.

“The park was really interested in getting that in-the-moment experience,” Sage said, as opposed to past surveys that were handed to visitors as they left and mailed back in days after the visit, if at all.

“It worked out really well,” he said, with 100 tablets circulated in a week, 92 of which were returned, some by FedEx after the tourist forgot to drop it off before leaving Yellowstone.

The tablets also contained a GPS that gave the researchers data on how fast the tourist’s vehicle was moving, how long it was stopped and where.

“Usually if people slow down it’s frustrating,” Sage said, but that wasn’t the case for most park tourists, possibly because slowing down meant they were gawking at the scenery or wildlife.

Bison jam

A group of bison walks along the road toward the Lamar Valley backing up cars. Bison jams are one of the reasons cars slow down or come to a stop on roads in Yellowstone National Park.

The tablet data also provided the research team and park managers weekly visitor feedback. Although the data was raw, it enabled the Park Service to address concerns if they arose, Sage said.

The information adds to data that Yellowstone collected in an August 2016 survey.

“Yellowstone is focused to a great extent on constructing a visitor use strategy that understands and responds to increased visitation in the following key areas: 1) impacts on resource conditions; 2) impacts on staffing, operations, and infrastructure; 3) impacts on visitor service levels; and 4) impacts on gateway communities and partners,” according to a park press release. “The park has and will continue to use a range of data, including this survey, to develop actions that improve performance in the four key areas.”


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