Report: Percentage of Montanans Who Believe Tourism Benefits Outweigh Negative Impacts at Two-Decade Low

Study by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research shows increasing negative attitude of residents toward visitors as tourism statewide grows

By Micah Drew
Hikers line the Hidden Lake Trail boardwalk on Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The percentage of Montanans who agree that the benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts is at a two-decade low, according to a report released by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR).

The report, “Montana Residents: Attitudes towards Tourism 2022,” is the latest survey tracking a core set of questions posed to Montanans over the last 30 years regarding their attitudes toward tourism. Only 66% of respondents to the 2022 survey agreed that the benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts, marking the second time since the survey began in 1992 that the number has dropped below 70%. The only year the survey garnered a lower positive attitude (52%) was in 2001, which researchers attributed to the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

On the other side, 19% of respondents disagreed with the benefit-negative impact statement, the highest number since 2007.

By region, respondents who agreed or strongly agreed that tourism benefits outweigh the negative impacts were:

Southwest Montana: 74%
Yellowstone Country: 68%
Southeast Montana: 63%
Central Montana: 62%
Missouri River Country: 60%
Glacier Country: 51%

Glacier County’s response signals a 4% drop from last year, continuing a streak of the travel region showing the lowest positive attitude toward tourism in the state.

In 2021, the Glacier region of Montana experienced an influx of out-of-state visitors that prompted a more negative attitude surrounding tourists than the rest of the state. That same year, business leaders and community stakeholders in the Flathead Valley met with representatives of Glacier Country Tourism to discuss reining in traditional destination-marketing campaigns, and instead shifted to a more sustainable approach that included education and outreach.

Glacier Country Tourism launched its “Destination Stewardship Strategy” in November of that year, launching a long-term collaborative partnership between the region’s tourism and community sectors, aimed at addressing overcrowding and visitor impacts on residents’ lifestyles.

Even as the 2022 ITRR study shows statewide attitudes about tourism benefits have reached a low, a majority of Montanans still see economic benefits to their communities, according to the report. Across the state, 80% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with that statement.

Overcrowded Attitudes

For the second straight year, Montanans’ attitudes that the state is becoming overcrowded with tourists were significantly elevated, with 49% agreeing, compared to 40% in disagreement. While that is down from a 2021 peak of 56% of respondents feeling the state is becoming overcrowded, it is the second-highest response since 1995.

In Glacier Country, the divide is more drastic, with 56% of residents agreeing that the state is becoming more overcrowded overall, and 58% saying their community, specifically in the summer tourism season, is overcrowded.

Tourism and Quality of Life

The survey also asked whether residents agree that increased tourism will increase quality of life for Montana residents, and for the first time more residents disagreed (36%) than agreed (35%).

These results signaled a shift from 2021, the study notes, with travel regions like Southeast Montana, Missouri River Country and Central Montana flipping from the regions most likely to agree, to those most likely to disagree. All three regions saw the level of agreement drop by at least 15%. In addition, the report calls the statewide overall trend “notable” as the number of Montanans believing a tourism increase would improve residential quality of life dropped 36% since 2019.

The ITRR report notes that, following the Great Recession, more Montanans were on board with the idea of increasing tourism “as a way of bolstering the economy and thereby improving the quality of life for residents within the state;” however, beginning in 2016 the positive effect began to wane, “as disagreement simultaneously began to increase.” Accordingly, 2022 was the second consecutive year that negative sentiment outweighed positive attitude, the study states.

The study’s concluding remarks note that, overall, “residents are fully aware of the economic benefits tourism provides, while also recognizing these gains may come with some costs.”

The Quarterly Montana Resident Study is based on a survey of 3,907 Montanans from 54 counties conducted in the fall of 2022. Flathead county and the Glacier Country travel region represented the highest proportion of residents surveyed during the fourth quarter, at 1,911.