In May, I often start my day the same way. I visit the Glacier National Park website and check the road status and take a look at the snowplow progress on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Snow is still abundant in higher elevations in the park and elsewhere. So much so that the unthinkable happened in April — visitation to the park actually decreased from a year prior by about 25 percent. Much of the decrease can be attributed to visitation to Camas, which wasn’t open and logged zero visitors (last year it tallied 4,663).
But as more of the park begins to open up, local officials and business leaders are preparing for another banner year in tourism in Northwest Montana. Across the valley, different organizations have hosted forums addressing the visitor demands and stressing how important they are to the local economy.
A recent luncheon hosted by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce focused on the “importance of travel promotion to grow and sustain a tourism economy.” Just a week later, the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce hosted Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow to address how to preserve the “Glacier experience” with so many visitors crowding into the park. And just this week, Mow along with other public lands managers gave a presentation at Flathead Valley Community College to tourism-based business owners and staff on what to expect this summer.
A lot of what has been discussed locally in recent years is the recreation options to suggest to guests who may be dismayed by congestion in the most popular parts of Glacier. With the park expected to welcome another 3 million guests this year, it’s best to spread out a bit.
Along with visitation growth in recent years, our population has increased. Many of those tourists attracted to our abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities become new residents for the same reason.
In a piece by Stateline reporter Jen Fifeld, she writes about the growth in rural counties and focuses on the Flathead in particular. She interviewed Bryce Ward, an economist at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, who says counties like ours follow the “the people first, jobs follow” model.
“A lot of people get off the plane and say, ‘This is nice,’ and find a way to stay,” Ward said.
Nearly all of us know a local who has followed this pattern. He or she came to town for a ski vacation or summer camping trip and never left. The difference now is more people than ever before are getting off the plane at Glacier Park International Airport. Last year, the airport welcomed 539,588 total passengers compared with 492,522 the year prior. In the past decade, it has added direct flights to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland and Portland.
Glacier AERO, a nonprofit community group that supports the airport and raises money to cover minimum revenue guarantee agreements with airlines, is now launching a fundraiser to add even more options. “Discussions with new airline service providers have already begun and target markets include Dallas/Fort Worth, Southern California airports such as John Wayne and Ontario as well as Phoenix,” the group said in a press release last week.
How many of these new visitors become residents will drive a large part of the Flathead Valley’s population growth for years to come.