Facing Main

What We Talk About When We Talk About Tourism

A report found that Montanans’ attitudes toward the benefits of tourism are cooling, especially after 2020

By Maggie Doherty

Two summers ago, late afternoon at the Foy’s Lake fishing access “beach,” I’m strapping lifejackets on my two kiddos and balancing them on the SUP. What was once intended as a fishing access site on the northern edge of the lake has turned into the defacto summer beach, and there were no open spots in the parking lot and the crowds were making room for more families and dogs and water toys bounding down the paths to the water. I let my kids try to paddle the SUP like a kayak and then I squeezed between the two and we went up and down the shore, mindful of the swimmers and boaters all around us.

When we returned to shore two young men asked me about the paddle board, remarking on how stable it appeared with two kids aboard. The duo was visiting from Canada and remarked that they’d never tried paddle boarding. While my kids splashed in the shallows, I offered them the board and paddle. They took me up on the offer, and I watched as each of them, a bit unsteady at first, found their balance points and started to float and glide across the water. The second man fell off when he steered the SUP back to shore and his friend and I laughed as he tumbled into the water.

After the quick introduction, the two collected their towels and announced their departure. The one who had a bit more balance than the other looked at me and said, “Everyone from Montana is just so nice. Thank you.”

Tourism is one of the great drivers of our state’s economy and, for many of us, is tied to our jobs. Yet, many times when we talk about tourism, we heave sighs about the increase in traffic or how we can no longer access Glacier like we use to. Trailheads are crowded, campgrounds sold out months beforehand, and what once felt like a locals-only spot is now viral. If everything feels busy between Memorial Day and whenever wildfire season ends that’s because it is busy. A recent tourism report noted that 12 million nonresidents traveled to Montana in 2021 and spent $5 billion. Neither are small numbers, and the impacts of tourism go beyond economic gains. A separate report from that same year found that Montanans’ attitudes toward the benefits of tourism are cooling, especially after 2020.

Responsible or sustainable tourism is a popular term these days and I’m curious how we can keep that Montana “niceness” intact when our state no longer feels quiet or accessible at our favorite public land spots and hideouts. Lack of affordable housing, incoming inequality, and inflation only exacerbate these problems, and it makes me wonder how much longer places like the Flathead Valley can endure through these dynamic surges.

No one likes a sour attitude, especially during our summer season when we truly feel like we’re part of the sparkling gem of the Crown of the Continent, but it feels like it takes a bit more to shine these days. Nevertheless, I don’t envision myself wanting to dampen anyone’s trip to Kalispell or make them feel worse for wanting to try the waters of Foy’s Lake when the sun blazes on a July evening. Besides, I like traveling to Calgary, so I’d hope my friends from that entry SUP afternoon would remember my kindness if we should so ever happen to meet again.

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