Tourism Grows as Economic Driver in Montana

Report shows nonresident spending contributes $4.5 billion to statewide economy, $618 million to Flathead County

By Micah Drew
Visitors at the Heritage Days Farmers Market in downtown Columbia Falls on July 22, 2021. Beacon file photo

A new economic impact analysis of nonresident spending in Montana shows visitors to the Treasure State spend nearly $4.5 billion during travel, money that supports local restaurants, hotels and other tourism-oriented businesses.

The analysis, conducted by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR) at the University of Montana, looked at nonresident spending during 2019 and 2021. Compared to 2018, average annual nonresident spending grew by 25% statewide, with Gallatin and Flathead counties seeing the most money from out-of-state travelers.

Another report recently published by ITRR surveyed nonresidents on their travel to Montana and use of the state’s 32 million acres of public lands

For visitors surveyed between June 2021 and June 2022, 21% were traveling to Montana for the first time, with 70% of first timers reporting they had wanted to visit the state for more than a year.

Behind a general desire to travel, visiting the state’s two national parks, Glacier and Yellowstone, was cited as the top reason for coming to Montana. Public lands in general, and the state’s scenic beauty, was an overall draw, with a majority of travelers using public lands to camp, hike and sightsee.

The results of this survey track with recent Bureau of Economic Analysis data that showed Montana’s outdoor recreation sector made up 4.4% to the state’s economy in 2021.

The ITRR analysis of nonresident economic contribution examines visitor spending by Montana’s travel regions and counties. Here’s a breakdown of the report’s estimate of 2019/2021 visitor spending and the economic ripple effects in Flathead County and across the state.

$4.48 billion
Average overall nonresident traveler spending in Montana during 2019 and 2021

25.1 percent
Increase in spending from 2018

$618 million
Money spent in Flathead County in 2019/2021, the second highest in the state behind Gallatin County

$540.9 million
Spending in Flathead County that had a direct economic impact, such as purchases of goods and services

$401.3 million
Spending in Flathead County that had an indirect impact on the economy, such as purchases made by travel-related businesses or purchases by those employed in travel-related occupation

$942.2 million
Total economic impact of nonresident spending in Flathead County to the regional economy, including direct and indirect categories

Total spending in the Glacier Country travel region, comprising the northwestern part of the state, accounting for 27% of statewide nonresident spending

Nonresident spending on guides and outfitters in Flathead County

Nonresident spending at farmers markets in Flathead County, 31.3% of statewide farmers market spending

Bar and restaurant spending by nonresident travelers in Flathead County

$1.03 billion
Money spent in Gallatin County in 2018 by nonresident travelers, the highest in the state

Counties in Montana that saw $50 million in nonresident traveler spending, including Flathead, Glacier, Lincoln and Lake counties

Amount tourists spent on gasoline and diesel statewide

Grau, Kara, “Montana Travel Regions & Counties – Economic Contribution of 2019/2021 Averaged Nonresident Travel Spending” (2023). Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research Publications.