The Great American West and coronavirus: a conversation with Kim Paulson

author photo
Helen Fanthorpe
5/26/2020

The Great American West is as great as its name implies. The region – covering North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho – is big-sky country, characterized by epic landscapes from the towering Rocky Mountains to the tumbleweed Great Plains. You’ll find fifteen national parks and monuments here, ripe for exploring. But how has the area experienced coronavirus, and how is it opening up? We chatted with The Great American West PR and Communications Manager Kim Paulson to learn more.

In conversation with Kim Paulson

Q: What does lockdown currently look like across the Great American West? Am I right in thinking that some of the states – Wyoming and Montana – have gradually started lifting restrictions?

A: Yes, though it looks slightly different in each state as they take phased approaches by state based on local data. Currently, the states of South Dakota and Wyoming do not have any travel restrictions in place for anyone travelling for leisure. Most businesses and attractions in theses states have opened to the public with continued social distancing and similar CDC guidelines in effect.

Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota © f11photo/Shutterstock

For Idaho, Montana and North Dakota, businesses have started opening, however a 14-day quarantine is still in effect for out-of-state leisure travellers (as of 21 May), but most of these orders are set to expire within the next couple of weeks should local data continue to show positive signs. More details are given on each state below:

  • Idaho – stay-at-home order expired on 30 April; governor outlined plan for reopening select businesses on 1 May; 14-day quarantine for out-of-state travellers in effect until 30 May
  • Montana – stay-at-home order expired on 26 April; governor lifted restrictions on select businesses 27 April; 14-day quarantine for out-of-state travellers ends 1 June
  • North Dakota – did not have a statewide stay-at-home order; governor allowed a variety of businesses to reopen on 1 May; 14-day quarantine still in effect for travellers
  • South Dakota – did not have a statewide stay-at-home order; no 14-day quarantine rule currently in effect
  • Wyoming – did not have a statewide stay-at-home order; governor began lifting restrictions on 1 May; no 14-day quarantine rule currently in effect for travellers

All states are advising that visitors maintain social distancing, practice regular handwashing and wear face coverings when social distancing is not possible. Businesses and attractions within the region are all closely following local authority and CDC guidelines to ensure the health and safety of the public remains paramount.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming © Oomka/Shutterstock

Q: There are a staggering fifteen national parks in the region, six of which can be toured by Google Earth. Could you tell us more about this?

A: Google Earth is a great resource for learning more about a location virtually. Most of these parks – including many other iconic destinations within the region – have launched their very own virtual tours and experiences which we rounded up and made available for interested travellers to experience at their leisure here (head to GreatAmericanWest.co.uk and click Virtual Tours to learn more).

Unique experiences can be found at each and every one of the national icons in this region, but the one thing in common you will find is that they all offer the wide-open spaces and escapism most people are now in search of.

Q: In what other ways is the region managing to connect and engage with travellers virtually? And why is this important?

A: In addition to those virtual tours and experiences available, representatives of the Great American West states have also been sharing personalized “stay safe, stay home, and we’ll welcome you when you can get here” type of messaging to continue to connect with travellers. When the time is right to travel again, this region will likely be at the top of the list for most travellers who are ready to get outside of the confines of their own homes and into the great outdoors, where wildlife thrives and there’s room to roam in these wide-open spaces. Our Facebook pages have also been a great landing spot for allowing travellers to envision themselves here, and really start to gather that travel inspiration they’re in search of during this time.

North Crater Flows, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho © Stephen Moehle/Shutterstock

Q: When do you envisage attractions and states opening up again to visitors?

A: Yellowstone (South and East entrances) and Grand Teton national parks officially opened last week, as well as Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The Loop Road of the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota are now open, though the campgrounds and visitor centres remain closed. Glacier National Park has not yet announced its opening, but snow plows are hard at work clearing up the Going-to-the-Sun road and getting it ready for visitors.

With the region not having any stay-at-home orders in place, most businesses and attractions are already starting to open to the public and are welcoming in visitors. The health and safety of the public remains a number one priority for everyone right now, so each community within the region continues to take careful steps to ensure both needs are met. There may be a case where an attraction or business is still working through what those new protocols look like for their own particular service they’re offering, so we highly encourage travellers to check the local statuses of destinations before planning a visit, especially with changes happening on a daily basis, and to continue to honour the local and CDC safety practices for the benefit of all.

We recommend starting with each state tourism office website – they will have the most up-to-date information from their in-state businesses and attractions you may be planning a visit to during this time.

Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Randall Runtsch/Shutterstock

Q: What new measures and rules could we see introduced when travellers are welcomed back to make sure that they come back safely?

A: It’s realistic to expect businesses and attractions to continue to implement social-distancing measures, increased sanitary practices and mandates for their employees as well as clear guidelines for visitors. Many businesses are releasing their own health and safety measures they’re implementing and are displaying their protocols clearly at storefronts and online so visitors can be prepared for what to expect when visiting each destination.

The positive thing about the Great American West is we have vast, wide-open spaces here, so keeping your distance isn’t much of an issue. We just don’t have the crowds that other destinations are now grappling with, which allows visitors to have a bit more freedom in their travels and can move about experiencing the outdoors without feeling concerned with keeping face coverings and gloves on at all times – like you may need to in densely populated regions.

Bison crossing the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park © Megan Brady/Shutterstock

Q: What are your predictions for the tourist industry of the Great American West for the rest of this year and into 2021?

A: As the health situation improves globally and countries begin to loosen travel restrictions, it is our hope that flight patterns will start to build back up, allowing travellers to more easily access the region. At that point, the Great American West will be more than ready to welcome back its visitors with a warm smile and generous disposition.

Understandably, people will be cautious about the way they travel and will want reassurance that their health and safety needs are going to be met. We’re expecting to see a longer window of travel planning to allow for this research and verification, but we will continue to look forward to inviting travellers to have a positive and safe experience in the region whenever they plan on visiting.

Q: Could you give us some ideas of how visitors might spend their summer holidays in the region this summer?

A: Outdoors! With the weather warming up here in the region, flora is blossoming and fauna is abundant. There are countless scenic drives in the region people can explore from the comfort of their own vehicles where you can see towering peaks, lush valleys and seemingly endless skylines of untouched landscapes.

Many state parks are opening up for overnight camping; hiking and biking trails remain open for day-use; rivers and lakes are ready for boating, kayaking or fishing; and lots of animals are out and about this time of year for a perfect day of wildlife watching. And don’t forget to add a few of the many national parks, monuments and memorials you can find within these five states to your list.

St Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana © Bill45/Shutterstock

Q: The American road trip is a classic on every traveller’s bucket list. Now, car travel looks like one of the safest ways to stay socially distanced. Do you think we’ll see an upsurge of road trips in the summer of this year, and are there any routes you’d particularly recommend?

A:Most certainly. Several of the states have already reported early signs of increased road trip planning to their destinations, so it won’t come as a surprise if we continue to see this mode of travel continue to grow among not only domestic, but also international fly-drive travellers as well. Not to mention, the Great American West has always been a road trip destination!

To answer the second part of your question (which is a difficult one!), there are so many great road trips within this region that it’s hard to choose just one. If you’re new to visiting, we definitely recommend hitting as many of the iconic destinations and national parks as you can, otherwise we have some really

great itineraries

to inspire your next visit based on your interests.

Personally, we’re a sucker for the off-the-beaten path destinations. And what better time than now to visit those hidden gems when looking to avoid the crowds and have a truly unique experience.

Q: What lessons do you think we can take forwards with us once Covid-19 has passed?

A: The power and newfound appreciation of the freedom of travel. And just being more aware and thankful for our own health and wellness.

Top image: Bison crossing the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, USA © Megan Brady/Shutterstock

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