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Solar eclipse 2017 and the tourism boom in its path

200 million people live within a day’s drive of the total eclipse

A total eclipse in Australia in 2012.
Naoyuki Noda/Getty Images

Editor's Note: This post was originally published on August 9, 2017 and has been updated with the most recent information.

On Monday, August 21, a solar eclipse will travel across the entire United States for the first time since 1918. Astronomically, it’s one of the biggest events of the decade. And for towns stretching from the west coast of Oregon to the east coast of South Carolina, it’s also shaping up to be one of their biggest tourism events ever.

For the hundreds of towns in the path of “totality,” the sun will be completely blocked out by the moon for two minutes and a partial eclipse will be visible for about 1.5 hours. Millions of people across the country are expected to travel in order to see what happens when the moon aligns with the sun, creating a black hole ringed by light.

The impact of the eclipse on the towns and cities in its path can’t be overstated. Experts believe that up to 7.4 million people will visit the path of totality on eclipse day, causing potentially crippling traffic, boosting local coffers by millions of dollars, and resulting in what might be the greatest temporary mass migration of humans to see a natural event in U.S. history. This is the story of solar eclipse boom towns.

The path of the total solar eclipse, stretching from the east coast of South Carolina to the west coast of Oregon.
NASA

Where and what’s happening

Eclipses happen every 18 months or so, but many are partial eclipses that can’t be seen well in North America. The hype about the upcoming eclipse stems in part from its rarity; it’s the first time a total solar eclipse has passed from one coast of the U.S. to the other in 99 years.

No matter where you live in the United States, you’ll be able to see what some are calling the great American eclipse. To find out what it will look like near you, Vox has a helpful interactive map of how much you’ll see depending on your ZIP code.

The eclipse’s path makes it accessible to a huge proportion of the country. While 12 million Americans live in the 70-mile-wide path of totality, some 200 million people live within a day’s drive. Yet many of the towns and cities in the path of totality are not large metropolitan areas. The fast-growing city of Nashville, Tennessee—the largest U.S. city in the path of the total eclipse—boasts a metro-area population of just under 2 million people, but most of the other towns in the total solar eclipse path are much smaller.

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Urban residents everywhere will be able to see the eclipse as long as it’s not obscured by buildings or cloud cover, but smaller towns and wide-open spaces will ultimately provide better viewing areas. This will result in a huge migration of people from urban areas around the country to less populated, out-of-the-way towns.

In total, GreatAmericanEclipse.com estimates that between 2 million and 7 million people will visit the path of totality, and those numbers could easily grow depending on weather, traffic, and real-time conditions.

While some hardcore eclipse chasers have been planning trips for years, cities within a day’s drive of the total eclipse believe that many tourists will be last-minute travelers inspired to make the trek from metropolitan areas like Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Atlanta. And if one city is forecasting cloud cover during the event, there could be a frantic rush toward other cities with clearer skies.

Other factors like easy highway accessibility, the fact that many schools are still out for the summer, and a growing buzz on social media mean that the eclipse has the potential to inspire a record number of tourists. In places like Nebraska, which is directly in the eclipse’s path, the event is expected to attract more people than any occasion in the state’s history.

A mass migration: the impact on towns

With this many people, the eclipse will transform small towns into bustling tourist destinations. The town of Madras, set in the high desert of central Oregon, is being heralded as one of the premier viewing locations in the U.S. In its most recent census, Madras boasted around 6,660 people. During the eclipse “festival period” from August 17 through August 21, Madras is expecting over 100,000 people, and based on the traffic over the weekend, those predictions are looking fairly accurate.

Other small towns will see similar numbers. St. Joseph, Missouri, a town of 76,000 people, is prepping to welcome anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 visitors, while Clarksville, Tennessee (a town of 150,000), will see around 200,000 eclipse tourists. That many people can overwhelm local services, and towns have been preparing for years for the event.

One of the biggest concerns is traffic. Especially in states like North Carolina, Tennessee, and Oregon, traffic on arterial highways will be a major challenge.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) predicts that before and on the actual day of the eclipse, Oregon will experience its busiest traffic event ever. In the days leading up to the eclipse, gridlocked plagued highways as thousands of people traveled to Madras and other eclipse boom towns. Local news stations in Bend and Prineville in Central Oregon reported long lines and running out of gas entirely.

Traffic from Denver, Colorado, north into Wyoming started early on Monday, August 21, as last-minute eclipse viewers tried to make it to the path of totality. The Wyoming Department of Transportation is warning drivers to make sure their gas tanks are full and not to wear eclipse glasses while driving.

Post-eclipse travel with hundreds of thousands of vehicles on the road at the same time could cause unprecedented gridlock. ODOT is advising people to arrive at their desired eclipse location the day before the event; to avoid travel on Monday, August 21; and to treat the “3-hour eclipse like a 3-day event.”

No matter what state travelers are visiting, police fear that distracted drivers will make roads treacherous during the actual two minutes of darkness. This is not the time to take a selfie.

Eclipse boom towns anticipate other problems that seem more akin to a natural disaster than a tourism event. Towns fear a national port-a-potty shortage, are working to prevent potential wildfires thanks to thousands of campers, and need to safely accommodate thousands of people congregating in remote areas like national parks.

In Oregon’s Madras, the town is installing more port-a-potties than the county has ever seen in its history. In Nebraska, the state is activating an emergency operations center—the same used in the event of a large-scale disaster. And Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, has activated the National Guard in case it needs to assist any of the state’s expected 1 million visitors. Across the country, the Red Cross is preparing hundreds of emergency shelters in the 12 states that will see a total eclipse in case other emergencies (like earthquakes or tsunamis) occur while millions of people are traveling.

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Posted by Red Cross Cascades Region on Monday, July 24, 2017

On a more local level, towns are advising residents to prepare for disruptions and to act now for “eclipse preparedness.” In Madras, Oregon, the city is distributing a pamphlet entitled “Tips for Residents” that tells locals to shop early to give stores time to restock before tourists arrive. It goes on, “Get cash. ATM’s may run out,” and “be prepared for slow internet; you might not be able to stream your Netflix at peak times!” Crowds are also expected to strain trash and delivery services and cause long lines at stores and restaurants.

Similar warnings have been issued in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Nebraska, and many fear that cellular service towers incapable of handling millions of extra people per state will likely make internet, smartphone, and GPS service nonexistent near the total eclipse zone.

The smallest of towns, like Glendo, Wyoming, don’t have the essential services needed to support the eclipse tourists. On Glendo’s eclipse website (all eclipse boom towns have them), the town advises visitors to arrive with a full tank of fuel, an icebox, and plenty of cash, as availability may be compromised.

Glendo even started a GoFundMe campaign seeking $25,000 to offset the costs of “port-a-potties, trash containers, and other sanitation expenses for the estimated 70,000-100,000 people coming for the eclipse.” Glendo has never seen anything like this: The town has a population of 202 people.

A house in Madras, Oregon, that’s renting for $10,000 per night on Airbnb during the eclipse.
Airbnb

The economics of a solar eclipse

While no one knows exactly how much money tourists will pump into local economies thanks to the eclipse, expectations are high. Nearly every town is hosting hundreds of eclipse events, from small-town street dances to a four-day music festival in Illinois—fittingly called Moonstock—that culminates in Ozzy Osbourne singing “Bark at the Moon” during the eclipse.

Elsewhere, Nashville estimates that their 50,000 to 75,000 eclipse visitors will spend a total of $15 million to $20 million, and even the relatively small South Carolina State Museum told USA Today it believes it will generate $235,000 from eclipse-related activities.

But the biggest financial gains might come from lodging revenue. Hotels in Casper, Wyoming, started taking bookings as early as five years ago, and Visit Casper reports that almost all of the city’s 2,700 hotel rooms and 900 campsites are currently booked.

By August 17, makeshift campsites throughout Oregon and other states filled up with eager eclipse watchers staked out for the main event. Aerial photos show thousands of people camping in fields near Madras, Oregon.

A lack of traditional lodging accommodations has caused many to turn to home-rental sites like Airbnb; the company expects its biggest night ever in South Carolina on August 20, with 7,000 rooms booked across the state. The eclipse is giving Airbnb, which has been at the forefront of the debate over how vacation rentals impact cities, a new talking point.

"Home sharing gives cities big and small the ability to scale up quickly for major events and creates opportunities for local residents to earn additional income by sharing extra space in their homes," said Will Burns, Airbnb's director of public policy, said in a statement.

There’s little doubt that homeowners willing to rent out their properties are profiting from the eclipse. Peruse the vacation rentals available in Madras, Oregon, and you’ll find ordinary houses renting for thousands of dollars per night. There’s not much inventory left, but a five-bedroom ranch house in Madras is still available for a shocking price of $10,000 per night during the eclipse.

Everywhere in the eclipse path tells a similar story, even if prices aren’t quite so astronomical: Hotels are booked and what lodging remains is expensive. A farmhouse near Hopkinsville, Kentucky—one of the top places to view the eclipse—is asking $5,000 per night for three bedrooms in a remote location. That’s a pretty penny in a farm community that has struggled following government restrictions on growing tobacco.

Despite all of the potential local problems, the influx of people, and the threat of unprecedented traffic, the atmosphere in eclipse boom towns isn’t fearful. Sure, the influx of much-needed cash in some of the country’s smallest cities no doubt soothes worries of potential eclipse headaches.

But there’s something more: For most of these cities and towns, there’s never been a bigger event. It’s a chance to shine, all for two minutes of darkness.