Tourism Season Approaches

Tourism’s upper-tier stature in Montana’s economy is not only here to stay, but undeterred by forces of nature as great as wildfires

By Myers Reece

Montana had one of its worst wildfire years ever in 2017, as blazes burned over 1 million acres and choked the air with thick smoke, occasionally at hazardous levels. It wasn’t exactly the recipe for a strong tourism season.

And yet, visitors came in huge numbers, as demonstrated by bed-tax statistics released last week by the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development, and further illuminated by other numbers and anecdotal evidence.

But it shouldn’t be a surprise, smoke or no smoke. Montana, and specifically this region, has been routinely breaking visitation and other records in recent years, all of which begs the question: What does the upcoming tourism season have in store? It seems hard to imagine even larger crowds, but the trend suggests they’re likely.

According to the state tourism office, last year Montana collected a record amount in bed taxes, which are a 4 percent lodging facility-use tax. The tax has been in place since 1987, and the revenues fund tourism promotion.

Both nonresident visitors and Montanans who stay at hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, guest ranches, resorts and campgrounds pay the 4 percent tax. Since 2003, guests have also paid an additional 3 percent lodging sales tax to support Montana’s general fund.

The idea is that bed taxes are self-perpetuating: the more that are collected, the more money there is to promote tourism, which in turn leads to increased collections. And it’s working. Collections are on an eight-year positive trend, according to the state tourism office. The highest collections unsurprisingly come in the third quarter, which is summer.

Those bed-tax figures reinforced previously released statistics from other agencies and organizations, including the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, whose preliminary data showed that 12.2 million nonresident travelers spent $3.29 billion in Montana in 2017. The institute’s report said those nonresident expenditures supported a combined 53,240 jobs.

Also in 2017, Glacier National Park, the region’s centerpiece destination, broke its visitation record yet again, surpassing 3 million visitors for the first time ever.

The numbers indicate that tourism’s upper-tier stature in Montana’s economy is not only here to stay, but undeterred by forces of nature as great as wildfires. With the good comes a more challenging flipside — namely, dilemmas over stressed infrastructure, breathing room and other logistical spiderwebs, all related to the hard physics of available space and brick-and-mortar carrying capacity.

Indeed, striking a balance between maintaining wide-open spaces and welcoming increasingly bigger crowds doesn’t come easily.

Recognizing the need for this balance, Glacier National Park in recent years has studied the impacts of overcrowding and congestion in an effort to identify ways to address the concerns, which affect Going-to-the-Sun Road, parking lots, campgrounds and trails.

While these questions linger, optimism abounds within the tourism industry. Northwest Montana is increasingly offering shoulder-season events that distribute both the fun and concentration of visitors across a greater period of time.

Spring is upon us, and soon the tourists will be, too. Whether we choose to join the crowds or avoid them, we should be able to find pockets of paradise that suit us. We manage to find them every year.