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Pandemic Travelers Flock To Idaho For Outdoor Recreation

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Thomas Hawk
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Sun Valley businesses say the summer tourism season has been as busy as any other year, despite the pandemic.

 

 

Blaine County was once Idaho's coronavirus hotspot, but it has not seen large daily case numbers in several months. Still, the summer travel business wasn’t looking too optimistic as recently as Memorial Day weekend. But now, tourist towns like Sun Valley and Stanley are full to the brim, locals say. 

“The vibe, the feel here, is that things are booming," said Ray Gadd of the marketing organization Visit Sun Valley. The visitation patterns are quite different this summer, however, he said.

 

The out-of-towners skew younger, show up in RVs, stop on their cross-country road trips, visit friends and family living in the area, and, oftentimes, stay for weeks on end. They're not packing hotel conference rooms, galas or event spaces; instead, they're taking to the campsites, trails and rivers.

 

“The fly fishing, and we sell hunting equipment here in the store too, that has been very, very busy — up substantially from last year," said Terry Ring, the owner of Silver Creek Outfitters, a fly-fishing apparel and guide company based in Ketchum. "People have discovered us."

Customers were cancelling fishing outings through the end of May, when people were more tentative about summer travel, but that turned around quickly, Ring said, and now the guides are pretty much booked through the summer. People want to be outside, doing activities where they feel safe, he said.

Locals are also noticing some of their favorite trails feeling more crowded than normal. Some are upset they don't know how many non-Idaho-residents are testing positive for COVID-19 — something the state and the South Cental Public Health District don't track because they don't usually receive the test results from tourists.

The influx of visitors is perhaps even more visible north of town in the Sawtooth National Recreational Area, which encompasses Stanley. Ranger Kirk Flannigan said the agency was expecting a slight bump in locals enjoying the area, but was surprised by the significant increase in campers and hikers recreating there in the month of June.

The campground usage is up compared to last year, even though the sites opened a couple weeks late due to COVID-19 restrictions. Dispersed camping — outside of designated campgrounds — has been very popular, too.

Among the visitors to the Stanley area are many "new users" of public lands, Flannigan said, and while that's encouraging, it's brought upon some challenges for his team. Typically, rangers find about 50 "abandoned" campfires each summer season, meaning the coals are still hot when the group departs; this year, they've already tracked about 150 deserted fire sites. "It's concerning," Flannigan said. 

Hotel occupancy rates and local option tax revenue dollars available in the next couple weeks will provide local entities with a better picture of what the summer tourism season has meant for them financially so far.

 Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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