Yosemite Valley

A view of Yosemite Valley in early December 2020.

The number of recreation visitors to Yosemite National Park dropped by nearly half in 2020 to 2.26 million, a 48.7% decrease from 2019 when 4.42 million visitors were counted at the top tourism draw in the Central Sierra.

The sharp decline in recreation visitors to one of the state’s and nation’s most popular destinations is a stark reminder of how COVID-19 has raked the Highway 120 and Tuolumne County tourism-based economies since the pandemic — which has contributed to the deaths of more than 487,495 Americans — began early last year.

The 2020 recreation visitor total for Yosemite is the lowest in more than 45 years. The last time the park counted fewer than 2.26 million visitors in a year was 1973. The park set a record with 5,028,868 recreation visitors counted in 2016, and averaged 4.25 million visitors annually from 2017 to 2019.

More than 90% of the business at Lucky Buck Cafe in Buck Meadows on Highway 120 in Mariposa County comes from Yosemite recreation visitors, Lucky Buck owner Denise Anker said Tuesday in a phone interview.

“When the park was closed, my business was down 90 to 95%,” Anker said. “That right there tells you we don't get many locals. It’s all about Yosemite.”

Overall annual sales at Lucky Buck were down 62% in 2020, Anker said, and she thinks a lot of that is because the park was closed from March to June.

“We got hit harder than Yosemite, when you compare 62% to 48%,” Anker said. “We got hit really hard because of the restrictions. We were down more than Yosemite traffic was down by. Of course it had a huge impact on the bottom line. I’ve taken on a huge amount of debt just to remain open.”

There might be other business owners who will share rosier numbers, Anker said, but she refuses to sugarcoat the situation. Her plan is to hang in there and hope for better days approaching. She hopes this past weekend is a positive sign.

“We had a really good President’s (Day) weekend,” Anker said. “Sunday was the second highest day we’ve had in 12 months. Usually those high-traffic days are in summer, so it’s encouraging. To see this in February, that is a silver lining. I was completely surprised to see such a high number, like a summer day, in February.”

Anker emphasized that indoor dining is allowed in Mariposa County. Further west on Highway 120 in Big Oak Flat in Tuolumne County, Anker’s brother, Steve Anker, owns Priest Station Cafe, which has been closed since early January. He said Tuesday the whole year of 2020 “sucked in every way imaginable.”

The decrease in visitors to Yosemite hurt Priest Station Cafe, and so did the pandemic itself, because eating in a restaurant is a social activity, he said. Folks are less likely to want to enjoy a pleasant meal at a cafe in the midst of a pandemic.

Closures of the park also hurt Tuolumne County residents at a time when everyone could use “the calm, beauty and inspiration of nature we were all denied,” Steve Anker said. He added that while he has been closed since just after New Year’s Day, he is “super excited to open up again soon.”

A spokesperson for the Highway 120 Chamber of Commerce could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

County tourism statistics for 2020 are not expected until the first week of May, Lisa Mayo, president and chief executive officer for Visit Tuolumne County, said Tuesday. Nevertheless, only having about half the visitors to Yosemite, the impact to the Mother Lode’s tourism economy is very significant.

Yosemite is a key reason that international travelers come to the county. International travelers stay longer and therefore spend more money at their travel destinations, “so not having them is a huge hit to our economy,” Mayo said.

Domestic travelers also spend multiple days in the area, to experience Yosemite and other gems in the county. When the park is not accessible or has limited accessibility, it impacts the county’s economy and its components, especially hotels, shops, attractions and restaurants. From a tourism standpoint, fewer Yosemite visitors means fewer visitors in other parts of the county.

“While Yosemite is a huge draw for tourism, at Visit Tuolumne County we really work to get Yosemite visitors to explore the other amazing parts of our county as well,” Mayo added.

The county’s reliance on Yosemite tourism is underscored whenever anyone searches online for “Visit Tuolumne County.” The very first hit those search terms bring up is headlined “Start Your Yosemite National Park Vacation in Tuolumne County.”

Denise Anker specifically criticized the system intended to limit Yosemite visitors that’s currently in place and was used for several months when the park was open in 2020.

“This crazy reservation system, that whole policy is really negative to marginalized communities,” she said Tuesday. “It really penalizes people of lower economic needs. People need devices and persistence to get a reservation. It excludes a lot of people. It’s a complicated system. People without a computer, it makes it hard to get into the park. The park is supposed to be for everyone, not just people with computers and high-end devices. People don’t understand that. They get all the way to my restaurant and they don’t know how to get into the park.”

Communications staff for the park did not respond to requests Tuesday. In a social media post on Friday, Feb. 12, park staff reminded Yosemite visitors that face masks are required in all federal buildings and lands when physical distancing cannot be maintained, including narrow or busy trails, overlooks, and historic homes.

The reservation system for Yosemite visitors, which was in place from June to October 2020, was imposed again early last week.

Every daytime reservation is valid for a vehicle and all occupants of the vehicle, Yosemite communications staff said. For visitors staying inside the park — at the Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Valley Lodge, or Camp Upper Pines — daytime reservations are included in nighttime accommodation reservations. The reservation system will remain in effect in Yosemite until local public health conditions improve. Reservations can be made at www.recreation.gov.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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