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Will tourism lead state's recovery from recession?

In the blue-white winter stillness of Jackson Hole, it's hard to imagine that Wyoming attracts some 5 million visitors annually. That's over 10 visitors for every resident.

The occasional whine of tires on snow or the crunch-crunch tread of skiers heading for the lifts at Teton Village seem only surface ripples on the larger pool of silence.

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But tourism runs neck and neck with agriculture, depending on who is asked, as No. 2 industry in the state.

US travelers - including those on business - spent $738 million in Wyoming in 1981. This spending generated over 20,000 jobs - 9 percent of total employment in the state.

Tourism is of even greater importance in this northwestern corner of the state: 80 percent of the economy of Teton County (the Jackson area) derives from tourism.

Rising gasoline prices of the last 10 years have put a damper on the marathon driving vacations Americans once enjoyed. But Wyoming still has Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, two of the country's top 10 tourist attractions.

''The days of people seeing seven parks in seven days are gone,'' says Clyde Douglass, assistant director of the Wyoming Travel Commission. ''People are planning their vacations a little better nowadays.'' Tourism is still subject to caprices unknown in other industries, such as weather.

One school of thought maintains that America will have its vacation, recession or not. To this end, Rod Everett, president of the Jackson Hole Area Chamber of Commerce, points out that the first year of the mid-70s oil crisis was a peak year for tourism in his area. ''Usually the first year of a recession has been a banner year for us.''

And Shelby Gerking, director of the Institute of Policy Research at the University of Wyoming, is predicting that tourist spending will lead the state out of the recession.

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But that view is not unanimous. Harold Bolger of the state's Employment Security Commission predicts a long and slow recovery from recession, with an attendant lag in tourism spending. People who can't buy groceries don't pack up for two-week ski vacations - or even camping trips. As it is now, numbers of visitors are off, and where head counts are holding steady, spending is falling off.

But out at Teton Village, Harry Baxter, Jackson Hole Skiing Corporation's marketing director, is rather pleased with the way the season is shaping up. It started slow but has picked up. Mr. Baxter expects this year to be 15 to 20 percent over last, followed by a good year next season. Good snowfall here, compared with other places, has been a factor. So have air tickets at ''fire sale'' prices.

Air access has been problematic over the last couple of years: The air traffic controllers' strike in 1981 cut seriously into Jackson's service; Mr. Baxter is glad that direct connections to such prime markets as Los Angeles and the Bay Area are better this year.

But if inaccessibility is a cloud, it is a cloud lined with silver. Overpromotion could ruin this area, and even boosters argue for meaningful restraint.

Across the state, a movement is on to try spread tourists onto the ''shoulder season,'' which in Wyoming is generally everything except June, July, and August , although Jackson, with its skiing, takes pride in being a year-round resort.

Yellowstone has begun opening more of its facilities in the winter. And a campaign is on to sell people on the beauties of autumn foliage here and on the merits of snowmobiling in springtime, when it gets up into the balmy 40s.

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