In the next 90 days, an estimated 5.6 million tourists will visit Montana. A large portion of those visitors will take the trip to this northwest corner of the state, drawn by the magnets of Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake and the suite of other scenic amenities that set this area apart and make it one of Montana’s prime tourist destinations.
Local residents frustrated by the flood of out-of-staters may bristle at the launch of tourism season, which unofficially kicked off Memorial Day weekend. But its stature as a tent-pole industry in the local economy has become undeniable.
Meg O’Leary, director of the state’s Department of Commerce, visited the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week to trumpet the recent triumphs of nonresident visitation and explain why tourism has become one of Montana’s largest economic drivers behind agriculture.
Last year the record 11 million nonresident visitors to Montana spent more than $3.6 billion, according to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. Visitation was 2 percent above the previous year while spending spiked 10 percent.
Of those travelers, 33 percent arrived primarily for vacation, and another 19 percent were visiting friends or relatives, according to the ITRR. A small percentage of travelers — 2 percent — came to shop, and more than 60 percent of the shoppers were from Canada.
Twenty-two percent of the overall tourist spending occurred in Glacier Country, which spans the Flathead Valley.
The high quality of life and rich outdoor opportunities in the Flathead make the valley an easy sell when it comes to the state’s bolstered marketing strategy, O’Leary said.
She said the state’s commerce department and tourism office are focused on four key points in the coming year: increasing the number of international visitors, including Canadians; ramping up the winter marketing for snow tourism; highlighting destinations like Whitefish Mountain Resort; developing a strategy for luring more nationwide conventions to the state; and increasing the number of films that are produced in the state as another form of showcasing Montana’s unique qualities.
O’Leary encouraged the valley to build on recent momentum, particularly by supporting the efforts of a new organization devoted to building a financial support system to improve commercial air service.
A valley-wide group named AERO — short for Airline Enhancement Regional Organization — has raised roughly $225,000 in donations to attract additional nonstop flights through Glacier Park International Airport. The group’s goal is to reach $250,000, which could be used to leverage direct flights to major markets. The money would be used as a private guarantee for an airline and is a common practice across the U.S.
“I really congratulate you on having a vision and having a road map and that people are giving money,” O’Leary said.
GPIA is entering the tourism season with momentum of its own, and could see yet another record year of air travel thanks to new flights. Allegiant will offer nonstop jet service between Kalispell and Los Angeles starting June 5. The new service will operate twice weekly until September. Alaska Airlines is also launching a new nonstop commercial air service between Kalispell and Portland, Ore., this summer. The flights will operate daily June 9 through Aug. 23.
Road travel is expected to spike as well, according to AAA. The nationwide auto club forecast the largest amount of Americans traveling 50 miles or more on Memorial Day weekend since 2005. A majority will drive to vacation spots, AAA analysts said, with states like Montana, where gas prices are among the lowest in the nation, expected to benefit greatly.
Visitation at Glacier National Park is already ahead of last year’s pace by 9 percent. Through April, an estimated 64,234 people had visited Glacier, according to the National Park Service. If that pace holds up, that means more than 110,000 people came to Glacier in May and more than 345,000 will arrive in June.
Glacier’s visitation historically spikes this month as the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road prepares to open fully from the west entrance to Logan Pass.
Plow crews are planning to have the entire length of the road cleared and ready to open June 20.
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