Glacier Raft Company prepares for a float down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Beacon File Photo

Slower Tourism Season Forecast in the Flathead Valley

Businesses are reporting a lower demand for tourism that’s comparable to 2019 as weather, high fuel prices, airfare and inflation disrupt travel plans

By Maggie Dresser

As pandemic restrictions slowly lifted in much of the country last summer, tourists flooded the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park during Kalispell’s hottest summer on record.

But this year, inflation, high fuel prices and Kalispell’s coldest recorded spring have cooled off the Flathead’s economy and business owners report slower traffic so far this year.

“It’s definitely been slower,” Glacier Guides owner Denny Gignoux said. “It can be attributed to a few things – one is weather. I’m sure gas prices are playing a role, Europe and Canada are open now and there’s ticketed entry to Glacier.”

Glacier Guides offers raft trips, guided hikes and bike rentals and Gignoux says the cool weather has likely been the most significant contributor to the slower business. Bike rentals and shuttles have stayed busy, but cold temperatures and high river flows have slowed raft trips down.

Earlier this spring, Gignoux canceled all his river trips one day during high water to stay on the safe side and avoid putting his clients at risk. He relocated some trips to different sections of the river.

“Our river trips have been sporadic,” Gignoux said. “A lot of that’s just the weather. It was much hotter and drier last year.”

Gignoux anticipates a season more comparable to 2018 or 2019, and says although business will likely be slower, it will be nice to have some breathing space after the busy past two summers.

At Discover Kalispell, a tourism information center, Diane Medler says high gas prices, airfare and overall inflation are impacting travel plans.

“We’ve seen some cancelations and softening of the booking that we would normally be seeing” Medler said.

According to data gathered by Discover Kalispell, May hotel occupancy was 12.6% over the occupancy rate in May 2021, but she said June occupancy has softened and hotels are reporting cancelations and slower reservations in July and August.

Weather and statewide flooding has caused some cancelations, Medler said. While the Flathead’s flood levels stayed manageable, many travelers did not distinguish northwest Montana from areas on the Yellowstone River, which caused severe destruction and temporarily closed Yellowstone National Park.

“Nationally, the media can cause a perception that Montana is not the best place to be right now,” Medler said.

Even before the spring flooding, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Lorraine Clarno said members were receiving notifications from travelers who are canceling trips.

“These are definitely fast paced and challenging times, and there may be a bit of a pause,” Clarno said. “Inflation, gas prices and airfare combined are all making it tougher. We’re going to see a lot of families doing stay-cations.”

At Whitefish Mountain Resort, Public Relations Manager Chad Sokol says the cool weather has impacted their mountain bike park operations and June snow on the mountain caused delays.

“The wet weather has put quite a bit of a damper on mountain biking, but we’ve seen a lot of surprisingly strong demand for other activities like the zipline and the aerial park,” Sokol said.

At Explore Whitefish, Dylan Boyle says advanced bookings for short-term rentals are steady in Whitefish for the summer, but numbers look more comparable to 2019.

Boyle says he usually predicts summer visitation based on social, economic and environmental factors, and while the economy will likely cause a lower demand for tourism, it’s too early to tell.

“We haven’t seen how the impact of flooding will play out here yet,” Boyle said. “But we are still planning on the event of wildfires, because we haven’t even gotten to that point in the summer yet.”

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