In Praise of Tourism

By Molly Priddy

I’ve made it my goal this summer to be more gracious toward the tourists that flood our valley, and it’s been a nice change of pace for my sanity.

Instead of being upset at the slower, out-of-state driver in front of me, going a cool 55 mph on a 70 mph stretch of highway, I try to envision what they’re seeing for the first time and then try to remember what it was like the first time I drove through here. (My eyeballs were plastered to the windows, just like these folks.)

Another way I’ve really learned to appreciate these visitors is by continually reporting on how important tourism has been and become to this valley’s economic stability. Over the past 10 years I’ve been reporting for the Flathead Beacon, tourism was one of the life rafts the rest of the valley relied on during the recession.

It can be hard to remember, if you weren’t here or weren’t old enough to be working during the recession, how grim it was for folks to find work or for businesses to stay afloat. Those tourism reports we got from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research showing us how much money visitors were pouring into our coffers took on special importance, and we watched as the valley’s popularity grew.

Now, in the recent 2018 tourism report from ITRR, we see that Flathead County was second only to Gallatin County in tourist spending, bringing in $614 million.

The report also gives a detailed breakdown about how visitors spent their money in Flathead County, and it’s a pretty interesting snapshot into how the valley has rallied back since the recession. Restaurants and bars brought in the most cash with more than $134 million, and retail sales topped more than $80.3 million. Outfitters and guides brought in $75.5 million, and hotels and motels saw $67 million.

Those are the typical heavy hitters we’d expect to get plenty of attention from visitors because they offer the necessities, but there were some surprises. In Flathead County, visitors spent more on made-in-Montana products ($24 million) than they did on auto rentals ($18.79 million) or campground and RV fees ($9.5 million).

One of my favorite highlighted stats shows that nonresident travelers in Flathead County spent more than $1.3 million at our local farmers markets, which have done considerable work to grow and expand what they sell and how they can sell it in the last decade. Statewide, visitors spent a little more than $5 million at farmers markets in 2018.

It’s hard to look at these numbers and maintain my grudge against the tourists, knowing what our valley looks like when it’s suffering more and booming less. Plus, it’s always exciting to see how people react to the beauty and grandeur of this place. I’m lucky enough to call it home, and watching others appreciate it reminds me to slow down, roll down the windows, crank the tunes, and appreciate it right along with them.

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