We rely on tourists and their spending, but it seems like we’re quick to loathe the visitors, too.
Tourists get blamed for a lot – creating traffic jams, crowding trailheads, and causing long lines at local eateries, among other obvious (see: your local bakery out of treats before noon) and not-so-obvious (lack of affordable long-term housing rentals in favor of AirBnBs) faults. Then there’s a special class of tourists whose antics go beyond the proscribed behavior and into the “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” territory like taunting wildlife, petting bison or mountain goats, or applying bear spray like bug spray. In Western Montana, we rely on tourists and their spending, but it seems like we’re quick to loathe the visitors, too.
Statewide, Montana is a major destination for visitors across the globe. According to 2022 stats published by Glacier Country, the region’s tourism hub, 12.5 million visitors flocked to Montana that year. Those 12.5 million, which can feel like all of them are driving the stretch of U.S. 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish all at once, spent $5.8 billion. Across the state, tourism supports 68,000 jobs. Many of us in the Flathead Valley likely have a job or someone in our household whose job relies on tourism. We might complain about how difficult it is to access Foys Lake on a July day or how tricky it is to score a backcountry campsite in Glacier National Park come the high months of summer, but the reality of the situation is that tourism is now one of Montana’s leading industries.
So, how do we manage our angst that can tip toward anger toward visitors while also embracing the economic benefits they bring to our communities? Essentially, how can tourism be sustainable? How can we protect the health and wellbeing of our communities while also providing the goods, services, and experiences millions of people desire when they fly or drive to Montana? While this summer was projected to be a slightly less busy summer compared to previous years, the Flathead Valley still feels inundated. If we are becoming such a major destination what sort of infrastructure projects are needed to help support the high influx of visitors, as well as to provide a benefit to residents, no matter the season? Public land access is vital for Montanans and, to no one’s surprise, a major attraction to visitors. What sort of measures can be implemented that allow for residents to still enjoy public land access while ensuring that visitors don’t pet the bison and know the basics of land ethics, like not disposing of trash in an outhouse? What’s the role of local governments in providing workforce housing and affordable childcare so those tourism-supported jobs can be staffed?
This is but a small list of questions that comes to mind when I think about how the Flathead Valley will need to respond to the continued popularity of our home as a destination. I do think tourism can be sustainable and want to strike a balance between economic gains versus what is lost in the crowd(ing). Montana is a recreation destination, and the state that is the gateway to both Glacier and Yellowstone national parks must also reckon – and quickly – that climate change will have devastating effects on all areas of our life, including the tourism economy. How will we respond to all these challenges? How will our elected leaders help us mitigate catastrophic weather events while promoting responsible recreation?
Big questions for a big state. Rather than complaining, I’d like to see innovative solutions.
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