While Montana has always been a popular tourist destination, with its stunning backdrops of mountains, rivers and, of course, a very big sky, I wonder if it’s losing some of the appeal it had, say, five years ago.
The state still attracts people who want to explore the outdoors for the sake of exploring the outdoors. Those who truly seek the solitude of veering off the beaten path. But what about those who simply want to travel the rugged North Fork Road to Polebridge to take a selfie in front of the Mercantile before turning around and heading back to civilization?
Have we reached peak selfie? It’s a question I ask myself as I read stories about how local visitation numbers are flat or have ebbed a bit. To be sure, there are other explanations of these early-summer numbers. Glacier National Park is now capping tickets to access the Going-to-the-Sun Road. More vacationers are traveling abroad post covid. Hot inflation has resulted in Americans skipping summer vacation altogether.
Or, maybe, Montana is attracting fewer people simply wanting to take a selfie to share with their throngs of followers. It’s hard to separate the explosion of visitation to the state with the increased popularity of photo and video sharing apps. Between 2013 and this year, the number of active Instagram users jumped from 90 million to about 2.4 billion. Meanwhile, annual Glacier visitation jumped from about 2 million to 3 million.
Selfie nation has grown unabated for about a decade. But what if everything that can be photographed in Montana already has been. Everyone has seen everything photographed by everybody else. What’s the point of traveling to an outdoor-oriented state like Montana if you secretly don’t enjoy the outdoors that much? The answer is there isn’t one.
Perhaps the bump in visitation from pandemic-era domestic travelers and curious fans of the television drama “Yellowstone” is dissipating. A lot of people who really wanted to visit Montana did so between 2020 and now. And they may not be coming back for a while.
Signs of what I would consider a more manageable summer (busy instead of bananas) are everywhere. The area’s outfitters are reporting a more “relaxed” season, and some are even declaring the tourism boom over. Hotel and lodging occupancy is lagging this year. And as the short-term rental inventory has continued to grow, demand has failed to keep pace.
On multiple occasions this summer, I’ve walked into popular local restaurants and landed a table for two without a reservation, which I would never even have considered trying just one year ago. Is this definitive proof that things are slowing and will stay that way? No, but I’m not the only who thinks this summer is much more manageable than the previous three.
I am, however, the only person I know who theorizes that part of the reason visitation has declined is because we’ve reached peak selfie. So many selfies with Montana in the background have saturated so many social media feeds that they no longer attract the required number of “likes” for a certain type of tourist to bother traveling to the state. They’re the type who don’t really like the outdoors, they just want their followers to think they do.
So, here we are. Tourism appears to be returning to more traditional and sustainable levels and I’m seeing fewer selfie sticks out in the wild in northwest Montana. That might not be a coincidence.
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