Glacier Country Tourism Reports Sluggish Summer Travel Season

Both Glacier National Park and its gateway communities saw a downturn this year, with rising fuel costs, higher airfares and inflation playing a role

By Tristan Scott
Hikers gather at Hidden Lake Overlook in Glacier National Park. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Following the dizzying pace of record-breaking visitation in 2021, a combination of factors including inflation, high fuel prices and one of the coldest recorded springs in the Flathead Valley had a chilling effect on travel to the Glacier Country region this summer, according to new tourism data.

“If this summer felt a little less busy compared to last summer, that’s because it was,” according to a report detailing the 2022 summer travel season by Glacier Country Tourism, the official tourism marketing organization for western Montana. “The level of visitation in our region during the summers of 2020 and 2021 was overwhelming with the influx of domestic visitors seeking to escape the pandemic in search of destinations with wide-open spaces, low population densities and plenty of outdoor recreation.”

Still, even as business and tourism leaders recognized that the unprecedented levels of visitation to the region in 2021 were unsustainable, pushing communities and local infrastructure well beyond carrying capacity, they anticipated the scales would readjust to a measure of parity in 2022.

Instead of regaining equilibrium, however, the market over-corrected.

“The market had to correct, but when?” the report states. “Our answer came in late May as we started to see slow bookings and less traffic on the roads. Just when we felt like things were leveling out, we were served several curveballs.”

The visitor-to-resident ratio fell from 2.02 in 2021 to 1.62 this year, meaning for every resident, there were 1.62 nonresident visitors. That equates to 22% fewer visitors that came to Glacier Country in 2022 compared to the year prior, according to the data. And although the “visitor share of spend” only dipped 4% — a marketing metric employed to gauge the amount of visitor spending captured by the regional economy — the cost of travel increased across the board, while in-bound travel exchange rates increased costs even more.

The average gas transaction in Glacier Country jumped from $47 in 2021 to $63 in 2022, marking a 29% increase, while the average lodging daily rate spiked 11.6%, rising from $244 in 2021 to $274 in 2022.

Other factors identified in the report include a return to international airline travel and the perception that catastrophic flooding in and around Yellowstone National Park affected western Montana as well.

“Probably most impactful was that both domestic and global market competition increased dramatically with urban and international destinations welcoming visitors back in ways that overwhelmed airline travel and caused delays, massive lines and constant flight cancellations,” the report states. “We also cannot discount that flooding in our sister region —Yellowstone Country — may have had an impact on people’s decisions to come to Montana.”

As the leading destination for out-of-state residents in northwest Montana, Glacier National Park also saw a dip in summer visitation when compared to 2021, reporting year-over-year declines of 8.74% in June, 9.39% in July and 3.1% in August, as well as a year-to-date decline of 6% through August, which represent the most recent statistics available.

And while park administrators are launching a series of gateway-business stakeholder meetings next month, they don’t view the drop in visitation as strictly negative.

“Everybody keeps talking about a big dip in our numbers this year, but if you look at historic visitation patterns, it’s not really out of line,” Glacier Park Spokesperson Gina Kerzman said. “The summer of ‘21 was totally crazy, and the year before that we had half the park closed due to Covid. So, while I’m reluctant to say we saw a return to normalcy, we certainly weren’t alarmed by our visitation numbers slowing down a bit this summer.”

In contrast, Yellowstone National Park entered 2022 anticipating an unprecedented tourism season as it kicked off its 150th anniversary celebrations, bracing for even more visitors than the nearly 4.9 million people it ushered through its gates in 2021, the busiest on record. Instead, less than six weeks after the park opened for the season, a late-spring deluge wiped out hillsides, destroyed roads and bridges and even washed away homes. Much of the park was temporarily closed just as the summer season got underway and, instead of notching a banner year, Yellowstone hosted just 596,562 recreation visits in July 2022, representing a 45% decrease from July 2021 (1,080,767 recreational visits).

As tourism growth in Glacier Country and, specifically, the Flathead Valley has increased to unwieldy levels, with local businesses struggling to keep pace and residents feeling overrun and displaced, tourism bureaus are pivoting away from the familiar strains of summertime promotion to education and stewardship.

“One might think all that new money being spent in our communities was a great thing, but with it came a tremendous amount of stress on most communities where the number of visitors was beyond capacity,” the Glacier Country report states. “That level of visitation was unsustainable.”

At Discover Kalispell, the city’s convention and visitor bureau, executive director Diane Medler is asking for resident feedback as part of the organization’s community engagement study, and will host a pair of upcoming meetings on Nov. 16 at 5:30 p.m. at Flathead Electric in Kalispell and on Nov. 17 at 8 a.m. at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell to gain better community input.

“It’s important to engage our community in conversations about these topics,” according to Medler. “At Discover Kalispell, we’re taking an intentional community-first approach that allows us to promote tourism as a key economic pillar while still protecting the culture, wild places and integrity of Kalispell and northwest Montana.” 

More information on the survey and the upcoming meetings can be found at https://kalispellchamber.com/chamber-priorities/community-engagement-study-on-growth/

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