LOS ANGELES: For the past two weeks, a wildfire has forced much of Yosemite National Park in California to close, with smoke blanketing its famous rock formations and clouding the summer travel season for one of the largest tourism economies tied to a U.S. park.
Steven Anker, 53, has seen business decrease by 80 percent at his Priest Station Café in nearby Groveland.”People come to Yosemite to see the outdoors. If the air quality is bad, they just won’t go,” Anker said.
Wildfires burning in the U.S. West have scorched 5.6 million acres (2.3 million hectares) this year, including parts of other national forests, the National Interagency Fire Centre said on its website. But the Ferguson Fire in Yosemite has stood out as particularly damaging to local tourism.
“The gateway communities around Yosemite are our top concern,” Caroline Beteta, president and chief executive officer of the tourism group Visit California, said in an email. “They are losing significant business during peak season.”
The area around Yosemite has the seventh largest tourism economy connected with a U.S. national park, with 4.3 million visitors spending an estimated US$452 million in 2017, according to the National Park Service.
While Beteta had no official estimates for how much wildfires have hurt tourism, the concern is that potential travellers alarmed by the blazes are cancelling trips. Nearly 20 percent of visitors to California go to a national park, making them important drivers of tourism, she said.
Yosemite is due to reopen on Tuesday, though with limited hours and services, the park said on Friday. Spokesman Scott Gediman said the fires have been contained away from the park, though smoke is still a problem at times.
ROADS ARE MONEY
Local businesses around the park this summer have lost millions of dollars in revenue on everything from hotel rooms to trinkets, with occupancy rates at many hotels approaching zero, said Rhonda Salisbury, chief executive of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau.
“Roads are money, and without the roads open, we die,” said Doug Shaw, who operates the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort near the park. Shaw had to lay off some staff and lost about US$200,000 in potential profits, he said.
The Ferguson Fire has caused two deaths and scorched about 100,000 acres (40,500 hectares) at Yosemite, which is about 150 miles (240 km) east of San Francisco. It broke out on July 13, when local businesses usually count on a large influx of families with children on summer vacation.
The company had 10 cancellations in August, he said.
California has seen the worst start to its fire season in a decade, and officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said satellite images show two-thirds of the state covered in smoke.
Smoke from fires in Northern California have even reached Oregon to the north. As a result, the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland has cancelled 12 outdoor shows due to poor air quality, causing a loss of about half a million dollars, said Linea Gagliano, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Tourism Commission.
But the local tourism economy of Durango, southwest Colorado, is still feeling the effects from a wildfire. When the 416 Fire burned parts of the nearby San Juan National Forest in June, hotels in Durango saw occupancy rates fall below 30 percent, said Theresa Blake Graven, spokeswoman for the Durango Area Tourism Office.
“The bears are walking around eating apples off the trees and the berries. We saw a mama bear and her cub by a hotel, the gray foxes are out So for me it’s been fun to see.”