It’s a game we play. As we wander our main streets, dine at local restaurants, park at nearby trailheads, we gesture, “That must be a tourist.” And oftentimes we’re right. Visitors are everywhere this time of year, and they’re easy to spot.
They’re a little happier than the rest of us, especially on weekdays when they mostly get the run of the place. And, like one of us visiting a big city for the first time, they’re often looking up. Except their eyes gaze at the landscape instead of the tops of skyscrapers.
There are other obvious tells. They tow large bags, wear light running shoes (even on toe-stubbing trails), and take a large amount of selfies. They’re also extraordinarily enthusiastic — something I envy about them.
I’ve quipped before about what it would be like to be a first-time tourist in Northwest Montana, to spend a day exploring the cities and terrain highlighted by destinations like Big Mountain, Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake. Then doing it all over again the next day.
Each year, I plan a so-called summer staycation — to take a week off and not go anywhere. But then obligations arise — be it weddings, family reunions, or ill-timed conferences — and I’m forced to cram regional treks into two- and three-day weekends. Then summer’s over.
Meanwhile, the number of visitors to the area continues to grow. The anecdotal evidence is obvious, but the numbers back it up, too. Last month, Glacier National Park shattered its attendance record for June visitation when nearly 621,000 people entered the park. The previous high was set last year when the park attracted 485,000 people during the centennial year of the National Park Service.
If this trend continues, total visitation to Glacier will easily surpass last year’s record mark. All those visitors have spilled over into the rest of the region, strapping a growing service industry that has had to hustle to keep up.
With the local economy humming, nearly every sector has struggled to find and retain qualified employees. But the food and accommodation industry has especially had to scramble to meet the needs and demands of tourists. And halfway through the busiest summer ever, under the circumstances, I think they’ve largely succeeded.
Yes, there are occasional waits to order a meal. It may take a little longer to launch your boat into a popular lake. And in Glacier, it’s best to time trips earlier or later in the day. But overall, from my experience, we’ve been a good host to an unusually large number of affable tourists.
It’s easy to forget how vast this region is and the relative ease at which we travel from one end of the valley to another. It’s also easy to lose a little perspective when there are a few more people in town.
I was recently traveling with an out-of-towner when we were slowed by “heavy” traffic in the commercial district on Kalispell’s north side. I found myself apologizing for the congesting. The city dweller just stared at me in disbelief and then complimented the mountain views we enjoy from our strip mall parking lots.
We’re entering the dog days of summer, an ideal time for tourists to visit. And they are … in droves. I just wish I could join them, ignore the “crowds” and rediscover the area again with their same enthusiasm.
Maybe next summer.