Tourists Renting Fewer Hotels Rooms in Montana

By Beacon Staff

GREAT FALLS – Tourism was down in Montana the first half of the year but the state is still doing better than the rest of the country, and a tourism official says better months are ahead.

A report by Smith Travel Research said 7 percent fewer hotel and motel rooms were rented in the first half of 2009 in Montana compared to 2008.

But the report also said occupancy rates during the same time were down 10 percent nationally and 15 percent in the Rocky Mountain region, which includes Montana.

“With the uncertain economy, many people have been waiting until the last minute to decide to travel, and then staying closer to home and seeking good value,” Betsy Baumgart, travel director for the Montana Office of Tourism, told the Great Falls Tribune.

But she added that could benefit Montana.

“The real heart of our tourism season is July through September,” she said. “And our tourism partners, including concessionaires in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, have told us their reservations have picked up steadily since June, though consumers seem to be spending less in restaurants and retail stores.”

Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, said the drop in occupancy at motels could be because more people are camping to save money.

“We think that, because of the sluggish economy and desire to trim costs, more people are camping, staying with friends or relatives, or going in with friends to rent condos, time-shares or vacation homes,” Nickerson said.

Dan Carroll, his fiancee, Kristi Jozovich, and her three children are spending four days at the Great Falls KOA.

Carroll and Jozovich, of Butte, said they thought about traveling to Salt Lake City or Spokane, Wash., for their big summer vacation, but decided Great Falls had “just as much to do and is more affordable.”

Al Belknap, manager of the Great Falls KOA, said camper nights have been up 10 or 15 percent to far this summer “and August has always been our busiest month.”

Mike Gast, communications vice president at KOA’s national headquarters in Billings, said visitation at KOA campgrounds is flat overall for the year, but up 2.6 percent in the Northwest, including Montana.

“The two-week vacation in which a family traveled 1,500 miles and stayed at seven campgrounds is largely a thing of the past,” Gast said. “With Mom and Dad working and more activities for the kids, they’re far more likely to take a week or four-day camping trip in Montana than they are to drive to Disneyland.”

Baumgart said that’s part of the reason Montana is doing better at attracting tourists this summer than other areas.

“We think Montana is perceived as a really affordable vacation experience,” Baumgart said. “A family of four can easily get by on $100 a day in a national park, which is a much better value than visiting a national amusement park.”

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