Flathead Tourism Season Outlook: Sunny

By Beacon Staff

Despite a shaky economy and sagging vacation spending nationally, the Flathead’s tourism industry should see a strong summer as international travelers take advantage of the weak dollar, compensating for any penny-pinching by Americans.

With the prevalence of vehicles sporting Canadian license plates, crowded sidewalks and boats being towed to and from lakes all over the valley, it’s clear that the shoulder season has ended, and the tourist season is here. But amid economic uncertainty, record-high gas prices and the rising cost of consumer goods, it remains to be seen whether the Flathead’s tourism industry will suffer a hit as some travelers avoid expensive flights and road trips. Tourism spending in the first quarter of 2008 declined 3.7 percent nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), with the public cutting back steeply on lodging and air travel.

Local tourism officials remain optimistic, however, that while vacationers are likely to change some habits, Glacier National Park will continue to draw domestic visitors, coupled with a weak dollar likely to attract tourists from abroad with strong loonies and euros burning holes in their pockets.

“The reality is quite contrary to what people are anticipating,” said Dori Muehlhof, executive director of the Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau. “Every hotelier is stating that their business is as good or better than years past, as far as advanced booking.”

Statistics from the BEA show that while the tourism industry suffers elsewhere, it remains strong in Montana, with lodging sales up 9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007 over the previous year. Numbers from the first quarter of this year show a 6 percent increase in lodging sales over the same period in 2007.

Derek Wagner, left, waits in the Amtrak station lobby at the Whitefish depot for his train. Wagner was making his way back to Pittsburgh, Penn., while on vacation with his family.

Economic concerns may affect where tourists choose to vacation, and how much money they plan to spend, but it won’t stop them from traveling.

“First and foremost, vacation is still sacred to Americans and they still go on vacation,” Muelhlof added. “In times of a fragile economy, people gravitate toward national parks.”

These choices are economical: Unlike theme parks or large cities, the activities on offer at national parks tend to be inexpensive or free.

But Muehlhof does anticipate tourists will be cutting some corners. They may shorten their trip by a day or two to save money and opt for cheaper recreation options, choosing the day hike over the spa treatment. The frugal philosophy could carry over to dining options as well, with more tourists choosing pizza and fast food over gourmet meals.

Jan Metzmaker of the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau there, reports a similarly strong showing by hotels and other lodging businesses with high numbers of advance bookings.

“They’re booking and they’re staying,” Metzmaker said. “I haven’t heard anything that shows us that it won’t be a good season.”

Like Muehlhof, Metzmaker predicts travelers may try to save a few dollars on their vacation, but won’t be deterred from taking that vacation in the Flathead. She points to a 2005 study by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana. That study, the most recent available, indicates the largest group of tourists to Flathead County – 10 percent – comes from Washington, with slightly less coming from California, then Alberta and Colorado.

Increased fuel prices could add about $200 to the cost of driving to the Flathead from elsewhere in the West, and Metzmaker does not think that added expense will be a deal-breaker for tourists planning to visit here for several days.

A passenger grabs onto a hand rail while ascending into an Amtrak train car in Whitefish.

That same UM study, however, reports that a whopping 67 percent of visitors to Flathead County list “Driving for Pleasure” as among their chief reasons for coming. With fuel prices chugging ever higher, driving has become significantly less pleasurable, and could deflate some tourist officials’ predictions.

But at this stage, it’s hard to tell how increased travel costs will affect Flathead’s tourism industry. Despite a nearly 15 percent increase over the last year in airfare prices, Glacier Park International Airport Director Cindi Martin said passenger counts are up for every month of 2008 over the previous year. And several carriers have reported that flights during peak times of the summer are completely sold out on both incoming and outgoing flights.

Amtrak could play a role in delivering more tourists to the valley, with the rail service’s passenger count up more than 10 percent, as of May, over the same period last year. Passengers for the Empire Builder line increased to 339,596, up more than 9 percent over last year – and Whitefish is the busiest station in the state.

Perhaps most reassuring about the tourist season of 2008, is that any shortfalls caused by frugal American travelers is likely to be more than made up for by Canadian and European visitors. Canadian visits are up 18 percent in 2008 over the same time last year and that trend looks to remain steady.

“With the dollar being so weak, we’re seeing a renewed interest in America because we’re on sale, basically,” said Pam Gosink, the marketing and overseas manager for Travel Montana.

Since 1992, Montana, along with Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota have been increasing advertising in European markets. Sales offices in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands currently encourage Europeans to visit “The Real America,” and according to Gosink, tour bus operators report high numbers of reservations for trips to Montana.

“Our region is very popular and they’re really selling into the area,” Gosink said. “Everybody is way ahead of where they were last year for U.S. bookings.”

So the forecast for the tourism economy, like the weather, looks bright. While some storm clouds linger on the horizon, most feel confident, at this stage, that any shaky economic indicators are unlikely to rain on the Flathead tourism season’s parade.

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