Solar eclipse mania spurs festivals, tours, sold-out hotels

The annular solar eclipse on May 20, 2012 is seen as the sun sets behind the Rocky Mountains from downtown Denver.

AP

CARBONDALE — The scientific marvel to sweep across the country in August has generated a great deal of excitement regionally, but it remains somewhat of a mystery how many people will visit Southern Illinois to witness the sun slip behind the moon for a few short minutes on Aug. 21.

On Monday, GreatAmericanEclipse.com, a website that provides loads of educational information and easy-to-read maps concerning the 2017 eclipse, added some new state-by-state visitor estimates to the mix. For the Carbondale area, estimates have ranged from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. NASA has provided an educated estimate of about 50,000. 

For Illinois, the website estimates a range of visitors from 93,000 on the low end to 372,000 on the high end. But that’s not just for the Carbondale region. The path of totality in Illinois stretches river-to-river across the bottom part of the state.

Though, the website estimates that the greatest concentration of visitors to Illinois to view the eclipse will gather in the Carbondale area.

The website estimates a range from 78,235 on the low end to 312,980 on the high end, with several thousand more people possibly traveling to other more remote Southern Illinois communities outside the Carbondale vicinity.

That’s higher than the estimate that NASA has provided to regional planning officials engaged in preparing the region to host thousands of visitors on and around the day of the eclipse. 

Cinnamon Wheeles-Smith, the executive director of the Carbondale Convention and Visitors Bureau, said regional officials planning for the influx of visitors are hoping the NASA estimate proves close to accurate.

“That is the amount we’re planning for,” Wheeles-Smith said. 

The estimates have been a moving target for months. Amy Fox, spokeswoman for the city of Carbondale, said city officials have heard estimates ranging from a couple of thousand people to upward of 100,000.

The total solar eclipse will enter Illinois at 1:17 p.m. beginning on the western border near Belleville and exiting at 1:25 p.m. on the eastern border near Metropolis, according to GreatAmericanEclipse.com.

The website is co-published by husband-and-wife duo Michael Zeiler and Polly White, of Santa Fe, New Mexico, both seasoned eclipse chasers and astronomy enthusiasts. Zeiler works in the geographic information systems (GIS) industry, hence his map-making and data skills. 

In Monday’s report, Zeiler wrote that he analyzed how the U.S. population is distributed with respect to the U.S. road network and the path of total solar eclipse and the resulting traffic congestion. He did so using advanced ArcGIS.com software by Esri, U.S. Census data, and a road network model of every street in the USA.

The point of longest duration along the path of totality will happen just south of Carbondale — which is part of the reason for all the pomp and circumstance. 

While Zeiler and White acknowledge that the point of longest duration allows for regional bragging rights, they also write, on their website, that for eclipse chasers, that fact is not high on their list of priorities.   

“The bigger question is: how important is point of longest duration? Truth be told, not very. It’s a fun fact but the overwhelming considerations for a viewing day are weather, weather, and weather. If the short-term weather forecast here is good, enjoy a glass of vino at the vineyard under the shadow of the Moon. If not, drive to where there are blue skies, hundreds of miles if necessary.”

The website estimates that the largest number of visitors wanting to view the total eclipse are likely to travel to South Carolina. The website estimates as many as 2.2 million people may descend upon the Palmetto State. Other states expecting to host a great number of eclipse viewers are Tennessee, Missouri and Oregon, it states. 

Wheeles-Smith said that regional planners are aware there are different categories of people who may travel to view the eclipse.

Some families may want to travel to the path of totality but want to avoid traffic and activity centers. 

That said, there are other people who may find meaning in viewing the eclipse at the point of longest duration, bringing them to Carbondale. Still others may be drawn to the region because of the many educational and entertainment activities planned for the weekend prior and the Monday of the eclipse. From sci-fi gamers to headbangers, the menu of offerings includes something for just about everybody that weekend.  

On the day of the eclipse, NASA EDGE is planning to stage a four-hour broadcast from Carbondale that will include live interviews and video of the eclipse as it crosses the country, according to SIU. The SIU Arena will host the Crossroads Astronomy Science and Technology Expo.

On the lighter side of eclipse events, Walker’s Bluff is hosting “Moonstock 2017,” a four-day music festival that Ozzy Osbourne has been booked to headline. And among SIU’s planned festivities is the school’s first-ever comic convention — Eclipse Comic Con 2017 — scheduled for Aug. 19 and 20, which will feature numerous vendors, special guests and a costume contest.

While visitor estimates are just that, Wheeles-Smith said that 90 percent of hotel rooms in Carbondale already are booked — and have been for some time. One local hotel's guest services worker recently said that most, though not all, rooms were booked. For $499 a night, a room can still be reserved — but a minimum three night stay is required – which puts the price at more than $1,500.

A complicating factor in estimating visitor numbers is the fact that some serious eclipse chasers may have made reservations at numerous locations along the path of totality, and plan to cancel their hotels elsewhere once they decide where will be the best place to be to view the eclipse, Wheeles-Smith said. That means they could end up in Carbondale or any of other prime viewing locations along the path that stretches from Oregon to South Carolina. 

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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