The forest fires that devastated Yellowstone National Park may spell economic doom for some businesses in Idaho and Wyoming, but folks in southern Utah are smiling all the way to the bank.
Thousands of vacationers who had planned to visit Yellowstone have been detouring to southern Utah and other Southwestern areas. And the result is a rash of "no vacancy" signs in southern Utah."You'd think this town was twice the size," said one waitress at a Monticello pizza shop.
"It's always busy this time of year," said one business owner, "but the fires have made that pale by comparison."
All of which has Utah business and tourism officials licking their chops over tourism potential not only this season, but in the years ahead.
Yellowstone is the nation's most popular national park, attracting millions every year. With almost half of Yellowstone charred by flames, those millions of tourists - and the millions of dollars those tourists spend - may now go somewhere else.
If this year is any indication of what the future offers, those visitors may head to southern Utah. Canyonlands National Park reported a 19 percent increase in August, while Zion National Park was up 11 percent in September. Bryce Canyon reported a 13.5 percent increase in July but only a 4 percent growth in August.
And the primary beneficiaries of the increased visitation are the small-business owners in rural Utah.
"It's been a really good summer down here," said Alma Truman of the Color Country Travel Council in St. George. "Kanab, Panguitch, Escalante, towns like that have had a tremendous year. There has been a definite economic benefit to southern Utah from the Yellowstone fires."
Truman said significant numbers of Yellowstone tourists are checking into travel information stations in southwestern Utah, most of them headed to high-profile destinations like Grand Canyon (in Arizona), Bryce and Zion.
In southeastern Utah, most appear headed toward Arches, Mesa Verde National Park (in Colorado) and Monument Valley.
"We've been seeing a lot of visitation for this time of year," said Eve Stocks, an administrative clerk at Arches National Park. "When the fires were getting a lot of publicity, we got a lot of tour companies rerouting their buses through here."
Since the peak tourist season at Yellowstone passed in September, the number of Yellowstone visitors going through Utah parks has also fallen. But that has only made conditions slightly less crowded.
Most Utah parks, campgrounds and major lodges operate at capacity through the end of September anyway.
"It's pretty much impossible to get a room after 6 p.m. along state highways," said Truman.
But perhaps not all the tourism increase in southern Utah is due to the Yellowstone fires, some say. Southern Utah, particularly the southeastern part of the state, has had dramatic tourism growth every year.
"There are a lot of people from Yellowstone coming this direction," said Peggy Humphreys, director of the San Juan County Economic Development Board. "But the whole Four Corners area has been receiving phenomenal growth for the last few years and most of those are foreigners. It's hard to say how much is Yellowstone and how much would have occurred anyway."