Tourism Office Trying to Build on Recent Success

By Beacon Staff

A rejuvenated and lucrative tourism industry is playing a dominant role in the state’s economy. But a challenge persists for business owners – almost half of the 10.5 million tourists who flocked to Montana last year visited during a three-month span, according to the state’s Office of Tourism statistics.

The summer months of June, July and August attracted the bulk of nonresident travelers and most of the $2.8 billion in tourist spending, while the other nine months lagged considerably. This feast-or-famine scenario leads some businesses to close during the cold months, or reduce employment for the “shoulder seasons.”

Local business and community leaders emphasized their desire to reduce the harsh impacts of quieter months in two recent meetings with members from the state’s tourism agency.

“Our shoulder seasons can be huge,” said Carol Beck-Edgar with Bigfork-based Edge Communications. “Even June can be tough because of rainy, wet, cold weather.”

The Office of Tourism is gathering input from meetings across the state for a new five-year strategy aimed at building on Montana’s successful tourism industry, which has become the No. 2 overall economic driver in the state behind agriculture. Victor Bjornberg, development coordinator with the tourism agency, said the goal of the latest strategic plan being developed for 2013-2017 is to unify resources and goals in order to better capitalize on nonresident visitation.

Tourism lulled in 2008 but has been on a steady rise in recent years. Roughly $2.77 billion flowed into the state last year thanks to tourist spending, according to agency stats. The 10.54 million visitors in 2011 were the second most on record, behind 2007’s 10.68 million.

The overall statewide hotel occupancy rate – 84 percent – was the best out of all 50 states this July, according to Smith Travel Research (STR), which tracks national and international hotel performance.

In light of the economic recession, “tourism has been credited with helping cushion the fall of a lot of other industries that have been hit hard,” Bjornberg said.

A prevailing theme that has emerged at recent meetings in western Montana has been finding a way to make Montana a year-round destination. Locally, the availability of Glacier National Park remains a large piece of that puzzle. The west side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road closed in early September for construction for the final time. The overriding belief is that when the iconic road no longer has to close early, it will significantly aid the fall tourist season.

Bjornberg also cited efforts to increase direct-flight air travel to locations across the state as a way to expand Montana’s visitor opportunities.

Bjornberg and others plan to visit almost 20 communities searching for more ideas.

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