2017 Total Solar Eclipse: Infrastructure Challenge or Economic Windfall?

-Idaho Communities Prepare for Both Scenarios-

Nineteen Idaho counties – from Washington County in western Idaho to Teton County in eastern Idaho – are within the “path of totality” and are expected to see a large influx of visitors during this year’s total eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017.

Preparing for the total solar eclipse is taking center stage locally, regionally and nationally. Experts from Great American Eclipse.com anticipate anywhere from 93,000 to 370,000 visitors across the path of totality in Idaho, including Sun Valley, Stanley and Washington County. But the majority of visitors are expected in eastern Idaho, with NASA estimating upwards of 500,000 in eastern Idaho alone. Anyone trying to book a rental property in the region for that weekend using Airbnb will see a message that “2167 percent more people are looking for rental properties in Idaho Falls now (Aug 18-22) than on average.”

Image: Google

Eastern Idaho can provide roughly 8,000 units of rental sleeping spaces including hotels, motels, rental homes, lodges, campsites and RV parks. If each space is shared by an average of three people, the accommodation capacity is around 24,000 people – less than one half to one sixth of the visitor count expected to spend the night prior to eclipse day. Putting this into perspective, if 90 percent of the visitors are around only long enough to see the eclipse, using the region’s resources and infrastructure the economic benefits for the hotels, restaurants and retail outlets may be less than if they were to spend the night.

Regionally, eastern Idaho has approximately 222,432 people spread across more than 19,000 square miles – much of it vacant without roads and little access to emergency services. The area’s infrastructure – roadways, cell towers, sewer systems, hospitals, emergency teams and more – is engineered to serve the residential population with capacity for anticipated tourism and economic activity. If the number of visitors  for the eclipse are realized for a condensed period of time, as estimated by NASA, the infrastructure will experience up to three times the number of people it was built to support.

While late August is still part of the heavy tourist season, the eclipse attendance will be the largest concentration of visitors the region has ever seen. Travel accommodation businesses, retail businesses and restaurants may see increased foot traffic and higher purchasing volume, but according to department economists, the benefits may pale in comparison to the actual visitor count. The Idaho Transportation Department anticipates seeing roads that would normally carry 1,100 cars per hour, increased to 1,800 or 1,900 cars per hour around the eclipse date. With many visitors intending to leave directly after the eclipse, a heavy increase in traffic may dissuade drivers from spending additional time at local restaurants and shops.

The average hotel room rate in eastern Idaho was $123.97 per day in 2016. With the eclipse, hotel rates are expected to increase significantly depending on the demand. In this case, eastern Idaho travel accommodation businesses are advertising rental spaces for $350 to $2,500 per night. Airbnb claims to have less than 19 percent availability currently open in the area. This is likely comparable to camping and RV site reservations. With an estimate of more than 3,700 rooms total in the region, some hotels, motels, lodges and inns throughout the region are already booked.

In addition, due directly to the sheer volume of visitors expected, the infrastructure costs the region may incur may exceed the profit margins private leisure and hospitality businesses will see.

That’s why Idaho businesses and government agencies within the path are holding frequent meetings in their communities to prepare and create the best possible plans available to accommodate the increase of businesses and at the same time benefit from the event.

For example, with so many small towns right in the path of ideal viewing, the Idaho Department of Commerce is working with the state’s Office of Emergency Management, local law enforcement and area hospitals to ensure all are prepared for the influx of people. In addition to holding a series of workshops in June, with one hosted by Idaho Falls the department has launched a website to serve as an information hub for both communities and travelers.

The website also features resources for businesses, visitors, residents and links to other resources, as well as plans and resources created by the Bureau of Land Management, the Idaho Transportation Department, the US Forest Service and the Idaho Tax Commission.

A quick glimpse at the eclipse impact on the hotel and rental industries can be found below:

Source: Statistica 2017
**The data above represents national averages, in conjunction with Idaho hotel/rental pricing and occupancy estimates for Aug-17.

For more information on what Idaho businesses and government agencies are doing to prepare for the eclipse, visit the Idaho Office of Emergency Management Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/IdahoOEM/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/IdahoOEM) accounts. Twitter users will find updates using the hashtag #IdahoEclipse2017.

Additional information can be found at these websites:

Hope.Morrow@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 525-7268 ext. 4340