Tourism Season Off to Robust Start

By Beacon Staff

Summer is the high season in Northwest Montana – it’s warm, the landscape is in bloom and offers stunning views and recreation opportunities, while drawing tourists from around the country to play in the Flathead.

Tourism dollars are a major part of the Montana’s economy, accounting for $1.8 billion dollars and 37,000 jobs, according to the state. Tourism dollars are especially important in the Flathead as the local economy works to gain traction after falling hard during the recession.
And so far this season, it’s looking to be a banner summer.

“Everything has been up, even from last year,” Diane Medler of the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau said.

One of the best barometers for summer tourism activity is the visitor count at Glacier National Park. This year, the numbers show the potential to reach more than 2 million visitors for the second year in a row.

June’s visitation to the park was up 12 percent over June 2012, according to the National Park Service Public Use Statistics Office, with 351,090 visitors in 2013 compared to 313,713 the year prior.

As a whole, this year’s visitation so far is up 6 percent from the same point in 2012, which saw a total of 2,162,035 people.

Polebridge experienced the largest surge of visitors in June, with more than 15,000 people visiting the area, an increase of 107 percent over last year. Two Medicine drew more than 28,000 visitors, a 22 percent jump over 2012.

More people driving, biking and walking through Glacier Park’s gates means a bigger ripple effect in the nearby economy. And with the park planning to keep Going-to-the-Sun Road open on the west side into October, that means a longer tourism season for businesses.

“You see the surge when (the road) opens and you see the decline when it closes,” Kevin Gartland, executive director at the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, said.

Business in Whitefish has been bustling in its busiest season of the year, Gartland said, with a notable increase over past years.

“We’ve just seen more business and more tax dollars through the resort tax,” he said.

Perhaps the best indicator of how well the summer season would turn out came before the summer even got here. Hotel bookings made in spring and early summer “were through the roof,” Gartland said, and the reservations have started extending into the fall.

Medler of the KCVB said hotel occupancy in Kalispell has increased this summer over last year, with Smith Travel Research reporting a 9.6 percent increase in June from the previous two years.

In fact, hotels in Kalispell have seen occupancy increases each month this year when compared to 2012.

The DeSmet, an historic wooden boat, departs from the lakeside dock at Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

“The trend has been really steady and strong over last year and even the year before,” Medler said. “I think we’re just going to continue on that trend.”

The goal, of course, is to draw tourists through other means independent of Going-to-the-Sun Road’s annual opening. Both Whitefish and Kalispell have worked to promote events that extend into the shoulder seasons.

“Through our promotional campaigns and signature events we are seeing increased awareness of our destination for travel beyond Glacier Park and specifically beyond just the (Going-to-the-Sun) road,” Medler wrote in an email to the Beacon.

The promotions are beginning to pay off. For example, the relatively new Oktoberfest celebration in Whitefish, which takes place the last weekend in September and first weekend in October, has picked up speed each year, Gartland said.

This year, the Oktoberfest weekends are already showing up on hotel bookings.

“One of our hotels is already completely full and the other one is very close,” Gartland said.

The Montana Dragon Boat Festival, taking place in early September, is also drawing business in the late summer, Medler noted. With 96 teams signed up to participate and over a third of those coming from out of market, the lodging, eating and shopping markets in the valley should feel a significant bump that weekend.

With July’s tourism numbers expected soon and August still on the way, businesses are optimistic that the summer boom will continue.

“Things are really very positive,” Gartland said.

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