Fueled by record-breaking attendance in Glacier National Park, Flathead County attracted the second highest visitor spending in the state last year, according to a new report from the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.
Nonresident visitors spent an estimated $635.4 million in Flathead County in 2016, second most behind only Gallatin County, which drew $732.1 million. The third-ranked county, Yellowstone, drew $402 million.
Montana as a whole set a new annual record for visitors with 12.33 million, a 5 percent increase over the previous year. Last year’s visitors spent an estimated $3.5 billion and contributed $194 million in state and local tax revenue, according to the ITRR.
Glacier and Yellowstone national parks remain the top individual attractions in Montana, and both sites experienced a bustling 2016, boosting overall nonresident visitation and spending in the surrounding communities. A record-shattering 2.9 million people visited Glacier National Park, a 24 percent increase over the previous record set in 2015. It was the third consecutive annual record.
Norma Nickerson, director of the ITRR, said Montana’s abundant outdoors remain the primary attraction that keeps visitors coming.
“That’s what we are here — we are about outdoor recreation. That’s why people come,” she said. “The main attractions are the parks and forests and streams and mountains.”
An increase in airport capacity helped boost visitor numbers in 2016. Montana airport de-boardings were up 4 percent overall last year. Glacier Park International Airport increased its capacity — the number of available seats — by 6 percent, and set a new annual passenger record with 492,522 people.
Nickerson attributed the boost in air travel to communities, such as the Flathead Valley, that have supported revenue-guarantee programs that encourage carriers to boost services. The Glacier AERO group, by collecting private donations, has increased direct air travel to popular destinations such as Chicago in recent years.
Nickerson said this increased air capacity helps both the tourism industry and the local business communities that are seeking quality access.
The ITRR report also illustrated the importance of Montana’s public lands to tourism-related businesses, finding that 85 percent of businesses would be negatively impacted by fewer access opportunities to public lands or waters. Other issues, such as aquatic invasive species, threaten to harm Montana’s tourism industry, the report says.
A survey of Montana tourism-related businesses showed 57 percent expect continued increases in nonresident visitors in 2017 and 36 percent expect the same as 2016, according to the ITRR.