Wondering how road reconstruction projects would affect tourist traffic, Yellowstone National Park officials last year requested a visitor survey that now is helping park planners determine tourists' likes and dislikes.
The $7,000 survey, conducted for the National Park Service by University of Idaho researchers, started out as a way for Yellowstone officials to determine travel patterns before embarking on a massive road rehabilitation project, said Steve Iobst.The project started this year with reconstruction of the road over Craig Pass between Lake and Old Faithful. In years to come Yellowstone officials plan to repair the park's entire road network.
The visitor study, which points out where most of Yellowstone's tourists enter the park, where they go within the park and where they exit, will help ease traffic flow problems during road construction, said Iobst, Yellowstone's management assistant for planning.
"But we also wanted to find out what we were doing and how we were doing it," he said.
The study, based on questionnaires handed out last July, showed that Yellowstone vacationers usually are making their first visit and, on average, stay only two days.
While the bulk - 42 percent - of the park's visitors during the survey period came from Western states, there were visitors from five of the seven continents. Africa failed to send visitors to Yellowstone during the survey period, and Antarctica of course basically has no natives.
Most of the foreigners who came to view the park's geysers, wildlife and wilderness were from Canada, Germany and Switzerland, although there were visitors from Argentina, Chile, Austria, Denmark, England, Ireland, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland and the Soviet Union.
Forty-eight percent of those who responded to the survey were making their first trip to Yellowstone, while just 9 percent had made more than 10 trips to the park.
Of the 846 who responded, 39 percent said there were just two in their group, while 21 percent were in groups of four, according to the study.
Lengths of stay ranged from less than one day, as reported by 10 percent of the respondents, to more than four days, as indicated by 19 percent of those who replied. Twenty-nine percent said they stayed in Yellowstone two days, while 20 percent stayed three days, according to the survey.
Although Yellowstone is renowned for its wildlife and wilderness, most visitors (72 percent) spent time in the park's museums and visitor centers, while just 9 percent took a back-country hike. Eighteen percent participated in a ranger-led hike, while 15 percent went fishing.
Many vacationers who travel to Yellowstone don't spend much, according to the survey. The total amount of expenditures in the "Yellowstone area," according to the survey, for 23 percent of those questioned ranged between $51 and $100.
On the low side, 4 percent of the visitors did not spend any money, while on the high side 21 percent spent more than $251 during their stays.
Within the park, 37 percent of the respondents said they spent up to $50 during their stays.
The survey said the average group expenditure was $225, while the average per person expenditure was about $51.
Iobst said that of the comments received, just eight complained of dirty rest rooms. Many of the responses mentioned the poor road conditions, he said.
"In the area of facilities, there were comments that we need more shower facilities for campers. That was something we realized," the planner said.
"Many people commented that they would like to visit again, or wished they could have stayed longer in the park," he said. "Many said it was an important national and international resource."
Along with helping officials ease traffic flows during road construction, the planner said information gathered during the survey will help officials make decisions on how they budget and determine what services tourists are using and which ones might be done without.
"If there is something we are doing that simply isn't appreciated by the visitor, that triggers two thoughts: No. 1, why don't they appreciate it, and No. 2, is it something we really need to provide in the future?" said Iobst.