When western Montana’s regional destination marketing organization, Glacier Country, formed in 1985, tourism was practically nonexistent in the eight counties it works with to promote outside of Glacier National Park.
Back then, Glacier Country’s primary mission was to market western Montana as a travel destination and to stimulate the economy by bringing in tourist dollars.
But fast-forward 30 years and Glacier Park no longer needs promoting. Visitation has grown exponentially, gateway cities like Whitefish and Columbia Falls are bustling with traffic, and hotels and restaurants are at capacity during the peak summer months.
Roughly five years ago, Glacier Country President and CEO Racene Friede said the organization ceased its marketing campaign in the summer and pivoted toward shoulder-season promotions, which includes fall, winter and spring.
“We started to see congestion issues with parking in Glacier and they closed the lots because there are too many people, so we worked with the park and we backed away from marketing,” Friede said.
Around the same time that Glacier Country quit promoting the park, a national park campaign called “Find Your Park” launched in 2016, which also promoted public awareness and education to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial anniversary.
“That’s really when we saw increased visitation,” Friede said.
Glacier Park has seen skyrocketing visitation numbers in recent years, including 3.05 million visitors in 2019, which prompted officials to implement a ticketed entry system this year. The pandemic continues to exacerbate the ongoing congestion and is testing the area’s limits.
Rural America saw an influx of visitors in 2020 as people looked to escape the pandemic in search of wide-open spaces, and that trend has extended into 2021 while international travel is limited and people are still apprehensive to go to destinations like Disney World or Las Vegas.
Last April, local tourism organizations started to pivot their messaging and Glacier Country attempted a “Love Now, Explore Later” campaign during the lockdown to keep rural communities safe during the pandemic.
“COVID really shifted us,” Friede said. “It made us do a hard pivot.”
To address the inevitable influx, Glacier Country collaborated with other tourism bureaus, including Explore Whitefish and Discover Kalispell, to focus on destination stewardship while partnering with the national Recreate Responsibly initiative, which encourages messages like leave no trace, know before you go and wildfire safety.
“We are trying to manage and help educate people,” Friede said. “It’s not that we don’t want them to come, but we want them to come and be good stewards of the community.”
At Explore Whitefish, Executive Director Dylan Boyle says the bureau has also shifted to focus on stewardship rather than promotional marketing, which it hasn’t done during the summer months since 2010. This summer, Explore Whitefish launched the “Be a Friend of the Fish” sustainable tourism campaign.
This new campaign invites visitors on the ground to share Whitefish’s community values, asks visitors to slow down, be respectful, recreate responsibly and be a steward of the land.
“We’ve definitely shifted into that sustainable tourism role and we’re really thinking about where we have been and where we are now,” Boyle said. “Our goal now is aiming to balance the economic vitality of tourism with values.”
In 2018, Explore Whitefish and the city identified the need for a sustainable tourism plan, and then implemented the Sustainable Tourism Management Plan in 2020 to “promote sustainable community-based tourism development that is beneficial to community members, employees, and visitors.”
The study found that Whitefish’s tourism infrastructure is near capacity in the summer and the overall lodging occupancy in July and August of 2019 was 77% to 82% full while commercial lodging is less than 60% from October to May and 40% in January.
Boyle says Whitefish hasn’t built any new hotels since 2016, but short-term rentals have exploded in the last few years, bringing in more visitors.
“Around 2014, we had about 75 active short-term rentals in Whitefish and now we have over 1,000 short-term rentals within the Whitefish zip code,” Boyle said. “That is definitely one of the biggest issues identified in the Whitefish Sustainable Tourism Plan.”
The management plan identified other high-priority actions, which include benchmarking and data collecting, emergency preparedness for events like wildfires, transportation and education and outreach.
Tourism bureaus are focusing heavily on education this summer because many visitors are unfamiliar with activities like camping and practices like packing out campsites.
“We’re seeing some bad behavior but we feel it’s attributed to people not knowing,” Friede said. “There’s just so many people new to it and that’s part of our messaging.”
Discover Kalispell launched a “Safety First Adventure Second” campaign during the pandemic, and Executive Director Diane Medler says the organization is trying to set up visitors for success by directing tourists through appropriate avenues like guiding services.
“If you do it with a guide, that makes it a lot easier to recreate responsibly,” Medler said.
Medler has also been encouraging visitors to practice patience during the peak summer months, and Discover Kalispell officials have spent much of their time explaining Glacier’s ticketed entry system to frustrated visitors. They also receive frequent calls from people searching for hotel rooms.
“We spend a fair amount of time encouraging them to wait and come in September,” Medler said.
The workforce shortage is also contributing to frustrated tourists this summer. With the combination of a congested valley and limited services at hotels and restaurants, local businesses are dealing with significant customer service issues.
“I’m hearing reports of bad behavior from folks,” Whitefish Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Gartland said. “There’s a lot of folks who aren’t really patient. They’re on vacation and they’re paying money and they want a service.”
To help address the workforce shortage, Glacier Country is partnering with the University of Montana’s College of Business to create training and education programs, like de-escalation management courses, and to develop new programs to address recruitment and retention.
While tourism bureau directors don’t anticipate the summer of 2022 will be quite as extreme as 2021 as the rest of the world opens up, officials don’t think Northwest Montana’s popularity will fizzle anytime soon. Bureaus are working with different stakeholders and legislators to form a “Destination Stewardship” campaign to find a balance between inviting tourists without overwhelming communities.
“I know folks are concerned about overcrowding and Glacier has become an extremely popular destination,” Gartland said. “We can become a victim of too much success.”
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