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Montana Tourism Rebounds From Slump

By Beacon Staff

In 2007, a report indicated that tourism was worth more than $4 billion to the Montana economy. Out-of-state travelers were flocking to the Treasure State and happily spending money when they got here.

But in 2008, rising fuel prices and early symptoms of the national recession kept more people home. And the travelers who did come were tighter with their money. By the time 2009 arrived, tourists were downright stingy.

The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR) at the University of Montana measured the total economic impact of tourism in the peak year of 2007 at $4.3 billion. In 2008, it dropped to $2.8 billion. The figure fell to $2.3 billion in 2009.

The discrepancy between 2007 and 2008 is a combination of significantly fewer visitors and less spending on behalf of the visitors. But visitation can’t take the blame for the half-billion-dollar decline from 2008 and 2009.

“In 2009, visitation didn’t drop that much,” said Kara Grau, a research associate with ITRR. “They were just spending less.”

Now in the heart of the 2010 summer tourism season, it appears travelers are again willing to spend money in Montana, according to state tourism officials. Not to mention, there are simply more tourists than last year.

Glacier National Park’s June visitation was 337,120, the highest June total since 2003. And its year-to-date visitation is nearly 4 percent higher than last year. Glacier is celebrating its 100-year anniversary and events are scheduled throughout the summer. Also, Yellowstone National Park broke its all-time June record with nearly 700,000 visitors.

Alicia Thompson, director of marketing and business relations for Glacier Park, Inc., said retail sales are up at the park’s shops, and lodging reservations “are going along at a nice pace this year.” She said she is “thrilled” by the number of visitors in and around the park.

“The remainder of our 2010 season looks strong for lodging reservations and discretionary income spending on activities,” she added.

In addition to Glacier’s centennial events, Northwest Montana has hosted a variety of other large gatherings, including the annual conference of the Western Governors’ Association in Whitefish.

Jan Metzmaker, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau, said the city’s Fourth of July celebration saw a huge crowd, while the weekly farmers’ markets have been packed. Echoing others in the tourism industry, Metzmaker said discretionary spending is up as well.

“I don’t know if it’s because of the park centennial or if they just want to go on a vacation after not going anywhere last year,” Metzmaker said. “They’re tired of staying home and not doing anything.”

Tourism officials look to UM’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research for insight into market trends, and now they will have more frequently updated information at their fingertips.

Grau said the institute has traditionally sent researchers into the field every five years, for a full year, to learn detailed information about Montana’s tourists and their habits. But beginning last July, the institute now has researchers in the field year round, every year.

The seven researchers work two or three days a week, rain or shine, Grau said. They are spread out across the state, focusing on gas stations, rest areas and airports.

“If (visitors) are driving in the state, there’s a good chance we’ll catch them at rest areas and gas stations,” Grau said. “If they’re flying, we’ll get them at the airports.”

Field researchers conduct onsite surveys with visitors and then give them another detailed survey to fill out at home and mail it back to the institute. From these surveys, researchers are able to identify spending patterns and other useful information.

Now that surveyors are constantly in the field, the ITRR plans to release quarterly reports, Grau said.

“When things do start to change a little bit, we’ll be able to catch it a little more quickly,” Grau said.

Last year, the ITRR reported that nonresident travelers directly spent $1.54 billion in Montana, compared to $1.84 billion in 2008 and nearly $3 billion in 2007. Travelers annually spend the most money on gas, followed by restaurants and bars, retail and then lodging. Researchers at ITRR also measure indirect contributions from tourists to formulate a total economic impact figure.

Grau hopes this year’s positive signs translate into a long-term trend for the state’s tourism industry.

“Things are starting to look up,” Grau said. “Hopefully we’ll start to see that upward trend again.”

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