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Coronavirus will likely reduce Chinese travel to Yellowstone

A crowd waits for Old Faithful geyser to erupt in Yellowstone National Park. Tourism numbers are down at the park after the suspension of Chinese tours due to coronavirus. File photo

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The coronavirus outbreak will reduce Chinese travel to Yellowstone National Park, according to tourism officials, but the impact will be small compared to the national effect.

“Yes, we would anticipate it having some effect, but they are not our only customers,” Marysue Costello, executive director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, told The Billings Gazette.

Chinese tour groups are “100% suspended right now,” said Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism & Recreation Research at the University of Montana.

“We can be pretty sure we’ll see fewer visitors in the Yellowstone area from China this summer,” she added.

“Most Chinese are avoiding any type of travel. Period,” said Kenneth Zheng, a University of Wyoming professor who has acted as a Chinese tour liaison in the past. “Even domestic airfares in China are at historically low levels.”

A drop in Chinese tourism has less of an impact on Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, Nickerson said, which never drew as many Chinese travelers as Yellowstone. However, Banff National Park in Canada could see a downturn, Nickerson added, because it has been more popular with Chinese travelers.

First detected in China, the coronavirus has been named a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization. So far the disease has killed about 2,600 people and infected more than 79,000.

West Yellowstone abuts the West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, the park’s busiest entryway. Chinese tourism to the United States and Yellowstone began climbing after a 2014 agreement between the U.S. and China made it easier for residents to get a visa.

“Yellowstone is THE park” for Chinese tourists, Nickerson said, partly because it was the nation’s first park, but also because of its many geysers and hot pools.

Even before the disease outbreak in China, however, Costello said West Yellowstone saw a decline in Chinese tourists last year.

“It was not as full a year as the prior two,” she said.

Initially, Chinese tourists came by the busload on chartered trips, which is documented in Yellowstone’s statistics. The number of buses visiting the park jumped from about 6,800 in 2013 to 12,800 by 2016. Each bus is capable of carrying about 50 passengers.

Kathy Pope, of the Salt Lake Express tour bus company, said none of her business’ usual Chinese touring customers have verified lease deals, although it typically doesn’t pick up until around mid-May.

“They’re just not confirming,” she said. “We are a little worried, but only just a little.”

When business was good, tours for Chinese travelers accounted for about 60% of the company’s business, Pope added.

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