The nation’s first total solar eclipse since 1979 is still nearly a year away. But communities spread across the United States are preparing to welcome massive crowds and the accompanying publicity and revenue.
While Casper boasts an astrological convention overlapping with the Aug. 21 eclipse and is considered one of the best viewing locations in the world, it is hardly alone. The path of the eclipse stretches from Oregon to South Carolina, and towns along the route are marketing themselves as the best place to watch the celestial event.
With the Oil City anticipating that tens of thousands of potential eclipse tourists will boost sales tax revenue and lift a local economy ailing from the energy bust, one might think Casper would be waging a fierce battle to draw visitors away from eclipse hot spots like northern Oregon and central Tennessee.
Not so, says Wyoming Eclipse Festival director Anna Wilcox.
“We are not ‘competing’ for attendance,” Wilcox said.
“I feel like that sounds awful,” she added later.
But it’s not, she insists. The problem isn’t drawing people to Casper. With local hotels already over 75 percent full during the eclipse — nine hotels are already sold out and others are not yet accepting reservations — Wilcox said her focus is ensuring that visitors who are bound to show up are properly accommodated.
“It would be difficult, at this point, to market when 90 percent of our phone calls are, ‘Hey, I’m looking for accommodations and I can’t find any,” Wilcox said.
Some smaller Wyoming towns along the path of the eclipse are actually afraid of attracting visitors because they’re already expecting to be overwhelmed with hordes of visitors that their infrastructure can’t accommodate, she said. Casper can take on the massive crowds, but Wilcox said she is trying to make sure the city rises to the occasion.
That includes free shuttles to help keep cars off the road and minimize congestion and a plan by the Casper Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to teach local workers how to best serve tourists next August.
Casper’s methodical approach to eclipse festivities stands in contrast to the city of North Platte, Nebraska, roughly 350 miles to the southeast.
Assistant Director of the Lincoln County Visitors Bureau Muriel Clark said her group is going all out to attract visitors to view the eclipse in central Nebraska.
“We’re all about promoting,” Clark said. “We really want to capitalize on [this] and make sure that if people do have choices they’re considering Nebraska.”
But North Platte is just a quarter the size of Casper, and while hotels are beginning to fill up, Clark acknowledged she may need to work harder to draw visitors.
“We fully recognize that maybe Nebraska is not the first state that comes to mind when you think ‘vacation destination,’” Clark said.
The town was planning to emphasize its ranching and “pioneer” culture, with a county fair and rodeo being moved to the eclipse weekend, she said.
Clark said North Platte is treating the eclipse primarily as a one-off boon to the local economy. However, Wilcox views eclipse visitors as potential return customers. If they don’t have a good experience while visiting Casper for the eclipse, there is little chance that visitors will come back, she said.
“They’ll be out and about and get that small glimpse of what we have to offer,” Wilcox said. “That can potentially turn into tourism.”
Taking a similar tack is Oregon SolarFest event coordinator Sandy Forman, who said about half of her energy is going into handling the logistics of accommodating perhaps as many as 150,000 visitors expected in tiny Madras, Oregon, next summer.
“We’re trying to hit both ends,” said Forman, who is also working to promote the town as a destination. But Forman touted the fly-fishing, hiking and resorts near the eclipse festival and wants to make sure visitors know how much the region has to offer in case they want to return.
They are also exploring using shuttles to move visitors around after being warned of the potential for severe gridlock.
“We don’t know what to expect,” Forman said. “Nobody does.”
With Madras hotels — along with many others along the eclipse route — booked two years in advance, Wilcox’s decision to concentrate on providing a smooth experience for tourists in Casper next August may make sense.
“They’ve already decided to come,” Wilcox said. “Casper is already where [people] want to be.”