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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of July 24 - 30, 2002


Summer tourism down, but not out

Business results mixed amid poor economy

Express Staff Writer

With the nation’s economy suffering huge setbacks and post-Sept. 11 travel fears still lingering, many tourism-based business owners in the Sun Valley area went into the summer season this year with guarded optimism. Now, halfway through the peak travel season, it appears that their reservations may have been warranted.

Carol Waller, executive director of the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber of Commerce, said that although no official visitor count has been tallied this summer, the numbers of tourists visiting Sun Valley and Ketchum do indeed seem lower.

"What we’ve been hearing is that business is soft," she said. "It seems that retail is down some, meetings and conventions are off, and lodging is off. Overall, the business environment does seem a little softer."

Waller said official counts of the number of overnight visitors in the area for the month of June are just now being formulated, and most business owners typically do not have any concrete evidence of an overall downturn in local business until "after the fact."

Waller noted that visitors to the area seem to be "taking shorter trips and spending less money," a trend that can likely be attributed to the national economic slump and an overall decrease in long-range travel since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The number of so-called "high-end" travelers with large amounts of discretionary income seems to be lower this summer, while an increase in the number of "regional" travelers—who can take short-range flights or their own automobiles to area resorts—are filling some of the gaps. The trend toward shorter-range, lower budget trips is evidenced in a spike in the number of overnight campers using the nearby Sawtooth National Recreation Area, she said.

However, not all of the area’s high-end travelers have stayed home or opted for less-expensive adventures. Wallace Huffman, general manager of the Sun Valley Co., last week told members of the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber of Commerce that while the resort has seen a drop in summer bookings, a surge in last-minute reservations has so far helped bring the company’s numbers up to equal those of last year.

Waller this week concurred that many tourists are waiting to make their travel plans—perhaps a good sign for all local businesses fearful of the impacts of a decline in early reservations. "We’re not doing a lot of tracking of advanced bookings because people are booking so close to the end," she said.

Waller added that the soft local tourist economy has resulted in a bounty of deals for money-conscious travelers. The chamber of commerce has offered some package deals and special promotions to lure visitors to the region, and some companies have offered special deals to tourists on their own, she said.

Outfitters and guides in Idaho’s outdoor-travel sector have also suffered an overall downturn this summer, said Grant Simonds, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. He said that the industry statewide has experienced a 10- to 20-percent decline in bookings for multi-day, destination trips into the backcountry.

He attributed the drop to an assortment of causes, including the drought of 2001, the fires of 2000, the national recession, and "a hesitation by visitors to travel long distances from home."

Simonds noted that the state’s fishing, whitewater and backcountry hiking guides have seen a mixed bag of results so far this season, with some—mostly day-trip oriented—businesses doing well while others have fallen off.

The trend for travelers this season to opt for shorter backcountry trips is most apparent in estimates for bookings on multi-day rafting trips down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which by some accounts are 50 percent lower than numbers from previous years. In fact, Simonds said that Middle Fork outfitters have not seen growth in their sector since 1995.

Despite the strain on outfitters, the drop has created additional opportunities for those looking for travel savings and an opportunity to raft one of the West’s most-revered stretches of whitewater.

In considering the decline in bookings for high-dollar trips in Idaho, Simonds said that he believes part of the problem is an outright glut of quality travel destinations worldwide. "With Europe, the Caribbean, and Hawaii out there, there’s a lot of competition."


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.