Fire officials said Tuesday Yosemite National Park will continue to be closed indefinitely because of a blaze that has been burning for 26 days in and around the park impacting three of its entrances. (Aug. 7)
Business at the Hotel Charlotte outside Yosemite National Park was so brisk in the first five years that Doug and Jenn Edwards owned it, they purchased the Groveland Hotel across the street last summer and spent $600,000 renovating it.
It seemed like a sound investment, considering both lodgings were nearly fully booked from May through October.
That was until the fire that’s still burning near the park forced the closing of the Yosemite Valley on July 25. Bookings have dropped by half since then, with more than 400 room nights getting canceled right at the peak of tourism season, when nightly rates are at their highest.
“It’s been pretty devastating for our business, in particular, as well as the town,’’ Jenn Edwards said, referring to Groveland, the last town on Highway 120 on the way to Yosemite in California. “We can’t even keep up with the cancellations right now. This is not the time we need to lose at least $100,000 in reservations.’’
The Edwards’ plight is echoed by merchants in and around Yosemite, from restaurateurs to shopkeepers to tour operators in tourist-dependent towns like Mariposa, Wawona, El Portal, Groveland and Oakhurst.
Yosemite typically attracts 15,000-20,000 day-use visitors this time of year, most of them pouring in through those communities and many dining and lodging in them.
But the danger and smoke resulting from the Ferguson Fire – which began July 13 and has now torched 95,000 acres – prompted park officials to shut down major portions of Yosemite, including the most popular attractions, leaving business owners hurting. Some estimate revenue declines of up to 75 percent.
“It’s been nothing less than horrible. It’s been bad for the entire town,’’ said Don Costa, who owns an olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop in Mariposa. “The streets are pretty bare and empty.’’
Jonathan Farrington, executive director of the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau, assessed lodging losses in the county at well over $300,000 a night, though precise numbers won’t be available until the end of the month.
Those losses have reverberated through other businesses.
“The lack of those rooms being occupied is more than a trickle down,’’ Farrington said. “It had a significant impact to the small businesses, to retail, to restaurants and to the attractions, which all were primarily open during that time.’’
On Wednesday, park employees were allowed back into the valley for the first time, an encouraging sign that life may return to normal as early as next week. A Friday evaluation should provide a better indication.
Still, for some that’s perilously close to being too late.
“The closure of Highway 140 is a big deal,’’ said Tara Schiff, economic development specialist for Mariposa County, referring to one of Yosemite’s primary arteries. “We don’t know when it’s going to open again, and I know many of the merchants are watching Caltrans very anxiously, and telling me that if it doesn’t open soon, they may not be in business for long.’’
That county has been pummeled by a number of recent natural disasters, including flash floods that claimed at least two lives in March and forced Highway 49 to be shut down. That came eight months after last summer’s Detwiler Fire burned more than 80,000 acres and destroyed 63 homes, forcing residents of the town of Mariposa to evacuate for close to a week.
No wonder the locals feel so battered, making frequent references to being hit by a “double whammy.’’
“We’ve had so much economic impact because of closed roads, floods and fires,’’ said Victoria Imrie, who owns Yosemite Ziplines and Adventure Park with her husband, Bryan. “Our chief financial officer said, ‘Usually you have two or three in a career. I’ve had nine in two years.’’’
Victoria Imrie said normally their outfit would be running at full capacity with eight zipline tours a day, but it’s down to about two now. The park closures and poor air quality on several days have been major reasons.
In addition, news media reports of the fire – some inaccurately portraying the whole park as closed even though large sections to the east have remained open – have spooked potential visitors. And the Booking.com website mistakenly canceled hundreds of hotel reservations upon the Yosemite Valley closure.
Along with other merchants, Imrie is trying to get the word out that many appealing activities in the area – such as whitewater rafting, ropes courses, wine and olive oil tasting and tours of the Old West-style towns – are still available. The county of Tuolumne, where Groveland is located, even posted on its website a list of “10 Ways to Play Indoors for the Day.’’
“Yosemite’s the crown jewel,’’ Imrie said, “but we’re definitely one of the gems people need to know about.’’
With attractions like Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point and the Mariposa and Merced groves of giant sequoias largely off-limits, the park itself has taken a major economic hit, losing about $200,000 a day in entrance fees alone.
Deposits for lodging, campgrounds and permits during the closed dates will be refunded, Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said. However, he acknowledged that for most visitors the missed opportunity to enjoy the park’s majesty represents the biggest loss.
For example, the cost of the permit to hike up the iconic Half Dome – $10 per person, plus $10 per application – is negligible compared to the odds of being among the 300 hikers chosen by lottery every day for the chance to make the climb. There has been no determination made on how to handle permits issued for the closed days.
Gediman said visitors have been disappointed but largely understanding of the decision made by park officials, and he told the story of a French couple who, two hours before the noon closing of Yosemite Valley on July 25, rushed out to get one last hike in.
“I’m like, ‘Quick, do your hike, you’ve got two hours,’’’ said Gediman, who’s also a park ranger. “They were good about it, but I felt bad because normally we would say, ‘Relax, enjoy the park.’
“We have people from all over the world. For a lot of these people, they can’t come back next week. And we can’t minimize the fact that a lot of visitors have been planning these trips for years. It’s really disappointing.’’
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