This article uses from the Idaho Department of Labor’s six regional economists, the Idaho Department of Transportation, CTR and news sources including Capitol Press, Idaho County Free Press, Idaho Mountain Express, Idaho State Journal, Local News 8, Idaho Statesman, KPVI, Post Register, Los Angeles Times, Spokesman-Review, Teton Valley News, The Atlantic and The Times-News.
The total solar eclipse of 2017 has faded into history, but its effects most likely will be discussed and dissected for some time.
On Monday, Aug. 21, the total solar eclipse occurred along a 70-mile-wide path across the continental United States where the moon completed blocked the sun for about two minutes. In Idaho, the path of totality entered the state from the west at Weiser, passed through the mountainous Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and continued over Idaho Falls, Rexburg and Teton County.
Before the solar eclipse, southern Idaho communities along the path prepared for unknown numbers of visitors, gearing up to host them at inns, campgrounds and private homes; entice them into stores and restaurants; and protect them from potential problems. Estimates of potential visitors ranged from low to astronomical. No one was sure how many visitors would come, where they would locate and how much money or time they would spend.
Even after the event, there is still a rough idea of how many people actually came and where in Idaho they spent their time. Counting the exact number of visitors was impossible since they were diffused among Idaho’s forests, deserts and towns along the path of totality. “We know people were here, but there’s no good way to count them. They were all so spread out,” Rexburg Mayor Jerry Merrill told the Idaho State Journal, adding that it is not like a fireworks show where people gather in a general area. “With the eclipse, you could watch it almost anywhere (within a) 30-mile swath from Craters of the Moon to Jackson.” Over the next year, more data will become available, but a full, accurate economic assessment of the impact from the eclipse will be impossible.
Like communities along the totality path from Oregon to South Carolina, Idaho communities reported substantial, but not overwhelming numbers of visitors. Idaho Falls officials estimated about 300,000 people visited eastern Idaho during the eclipse weekend. Numbers from the Idaho Transportation Department suggest lower numbers. Visitors came from all over the U.S. and many nations including Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Denmark, France, India, Ireland, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, and the United Kingdom.
The Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve hosted a record number of visitors during the week around the eclipse. The percentage increase of traffic in the area was higher than elsewhere in the state, according to the Idaho Transportation Department’s traffic count statistics. The park closed for a few hours both Sunday and Monday, since traffic had backed up to the point it was unsafe. About 2,000 cars passed through the park’s entrance daily those two days, compared to a normal summer-day average of 400 to 500 cars.
The number of visitors to Yellowstone National Park dipped in the days immediately before and on the day of the eclipse, but saw heavier-than-normal traffic the day after.
Tens of Thousands of Visitors Arrived by Car
On Aug. 22, the Idaho Transportation Department provided preliminary estimates on traffic into Idaho for the solar eclipse. Its report said, “Our traffic counters near the state borders counted 449,530 cars entering the state between August 18 and August 21. This number was an increase of 71,140 during that same period last year when 361,270 cars were counted entering Idaho at those same locations. ITD estimates more than 160,000 visitors came from out of state for the event.”
In a note on methodology, ITD’s number is an estimate of visitors to Idaho for the 2017 solar eclipse and not intended to be authoritative. ITD’s method for estimating visitor numbers took the change in traffic count from 2016 to 2017 at border locations — marked with an asterisk (*) in the following table — multiplied by 2.5 people average per vehicle, minus 5 percent for local traffic. This method does not capture the number of visitors who may have flown into Idaho via commercial flights or backcountry airstrips. These numbers also do not include visitors who arrived before Aug. 18 and departed after Aug. 21.
The report stated, “The bulk of the visitors came from Utah and Oregon. Areas where the traffic was busiest include I-15 between Utah and Idaho Falls, US 93 near Craters of the Moon, US 20 near Arco, ID 95 from Payette to Riggins and ID 55 north of Eagle.”
As many as 3,500 cars per hour traveled north from Pocatello to the Idaho Falls area, according to a report from Local News 8 in Idaho Falls.
In the following table traffic counts for 2017 are for 11:00 a.m. Aug. 17 to noon Aug. 21, while traffic counts for 2016 are for 11 a.m. Aug. 15 to noon Aug. 19. Sites used to calculate out-of-state visitors are shown with asterisks.
In addition to those visitors who drove to Idaho for the eclipse, many came by plane. Both United and Delta added commercial flights into Idaho Falls for a few days around the eclipse, and airports throughout southern Idaho reported being extremely busy with many private airplanes that arrived for the event. Car rental companies at the Idaho Falls airport brought in cars from other states to meet the strong demand.
The Joys and Risks of Entrepreneurial Activity
Before the eclipse, it was difficult to predict where visitors would locate, what products and services they would need and how liberally they would spend. After the eclipse, there are mixed reports — with crowds failing to materialize in some places, some visitors just coming for the day and some hanging around but not spending much money. The risk paid off for some restaurants and stores, while others lost money.
The inability to predict where visitors would show up made it challenging for businesses to know how much they should ramp up. Some businesses ended up pleased, and others were disappointed. Stanley, where businesses had been told to prepare for up to 30,000 visitors, reported lower-than-normal visitors, hurting their bottom lines considerably. Weiser and Teton County experienced streams of visitors, but were not as inundated as some people had predicted.
Idaho Falls hotels saw the highest average daily rate ($368) and the largest year-over-year average daily rate increase (276 percent) on Aug. 20, the Sunday before the total solar eclipse.
Of the 15 largest cities in the path of totality, Casper, Wyo., recorded the largest gain in revenue per available room for the day (766 percent to $261.96). Hotels in the path of totality reported a 244 percent increase in revenue per available room on the night before the eclipse, STR reported. In the three days leading up to the eclipse, hotels in the path of totality reported an 87 percent increase in revenue per available room. STR is global research company serving the hospitality industry.
Other key findings of STR’s analysis include:
- Most of the 139,000 hotel rooms in the path of totality were in non-urban locations.
- Midscale and upper-midscale hotels outperformed all other classes during the eclipse.
The risks and potential high rewards of catering to the eclipse crowds brought out some Idahoans’ entrepreneurial spirit. They took opportunities to provide accommodations, food or services for visitors or to make and sell eclipse mementos.
With all the hotels and motels in the totality path booked months in advance, many Idahoans earned extra money by renting out their homes or by creating temporary campgrounds on their fields. By mid-August, campsites were being advertised for as much as $300 a night. On Aug. 10, online short-term rental marketplace Airbnb said the upcoming eclipse caused a record-breaking number of sales throughout the path of the eclipse, including Idaho. “Airbnb is going to have its biggest night ever the night of the eclipse,” spokeswoman Jasmine Mora said. Idaho was expected to receive the fourth-highest number of Airbnb guests in the nation. Airbnb expected a 450 percent increase in visitors to Idaho during the week of Aug. 20 over the prior week. In Idaho Falls, Airbnb reported 739 homes and rooms would be rented out to eclipse visitors. That’s nearly a seven-fold increase from what’s expected the week prior. In Rexburg, 1,120 were rented — an eight-fold increase and in Rigby, 669 rentals – a 65-fold increase. Airbnb noted that the average nightly rate in Idaho would be approximately $314 during the week of Aug. 20.
A Little Extra Spending Money of Some Idaho Workers
Workers at stores, restaurants, gas stations and lodging facilities were among those who benefitted from the eclipse earning extra income. Many worked overtime, preparing for the visitors and then serving them. Many stores and restaurants did a brisk business, while some were disappointed in the number of visitors and lost money because they had overstocked.
The Costs of the Eclipse
In addition to the economic benefits of the temporary population explosion, there were costs. The highest arose from the planning, staffing and extra supplies required for law enforcement, fire prevention, traffic management and public safety. Parks and national forests stepped up their fire prevention efforts. Hospitals in and near the totality path ramped up staffing and stocked up on supplies in case of events that may have resulted in mass casualties. Road construction halted for a day or two to ensure roads were able to handle the anticipated increase in traffic. In the Idaho Falls area, severe traffic jams hindered movement along the I-15 corridor for up to eight hours after the eclipse. Traffic on the interstate was bumper-to-bumper for several hours after the eclipse, rarely exceeding 25 mph. The drive from Idaho Falls to Rexburg on Highway 20, for example, took up to three hours while it usually takes 30 minutes. Despite the congestion, the Idaho Transportation Department reported no fatalities or crashes. Fortunately, the worst did not happen and some costs to address potential trouble were offset by the increased proficiency of emergency service providers through eclipse training, planning and coordination.
Over the next year or so, more statistics providing more information about the eclipse’s economic impact will be available. But like the eclipse the picture will never be entirely clear. The impact may be debated for years. Some of the lessons learned may be helpful for future special events, but not for a total solar eclipse. Idaho won’t see another total eclipse for 152 years.
The biggest benefit of the eclipse for Idaho businesses may be the impact of the tourists who came here that normally would not have otherwise. Many will likely return to their communities around the world and tell people how wonderful Idaho is and likely visit Idaho again in the future. Perhaps a couple of minutes of darkness shone light on the amazing recreational opportunities, fascinating tourist attractions, charming towns and breathtaking scenery Idaho offers.
Kathryn.Tacke@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 799-5000 ext. 3984