Report: Tourism Attitudes Tick Upward in Montana

A study by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research reveals responses vary by region, with northwest Montana harboring the strongest negative opinion

By Micah Drew
Visitors pose for pictures at the Glacier National Park sign in West Glacier on Aug. 8, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The percentage of Montanans who agree that the benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts rebounded slightly from a two-decade low recorded in 2022, according to a report released in April by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR). Residents of Montana’s Glacier Country tourism region, which covers the state’s eight westernmost counties, increased their positive sentiment by 8% compared to 2022.

The report, “Montana Residents: Attitudes Towards Tourism 2023,” is the latest survey tracking a core set of questions posed to Montanans over the last 30 years regarding their attitudes toward tourism. Sixty-nine percent of respondents to the 2023 survey agreed that the benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts, a 4% increase from 2022. However, it was just the third time that less than 70% of Montanans have expressed a positive attitude toward out-of-state visitors. The lowest recorded positive attitude (52%) was in 2001, which researchers attributed to the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Only 13% of respondents disagreed with the benefit-negative impact statement, a 4% decrease from 2022.

By region, respondents who agreed or strongly agreed that the benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts are shown in the table below.

Travel Region2022 Result2023 Result
Missouri River Country60%81%
Yellowstone Country68% 79%
Southeast Montana63%79%
Southwest Montana74%70%
Central Montana62%61%
Glacier Country51%58%
Montana Overall65%69%
The percentage of respondents who agree that the benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts.

Glacier Country’s response signals an 8% increase from last year when resident responses were the lowest on record, though the region continues its multi-year streak of harboring the lowest positive attitude toward tourism in the state. The influx of out-of-state visitors to the region following the COVID-19 pandemic pushed an increasingly negative attitude surrounding tourism compared to other regions in Montana.

Melissa Weddell, director of the ITRR, said it can be hard to draw direct conclusions from the regional responses, as they cover diverse segments of the state.

“Specifically in the Glacier Country Region, tourism varies in counties and communities that, for one area, it is an economic opportunity, but for another location it is an economic challenge,” she wrote in an email to the Beacon.

The Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission is a nonprofit that partners with Western Montana communities to “welcome visitors and support livelihoods while protecting quality of life, extraordinary outdoor resources, and cultural heritage.” In 2021, 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. In 2022 Glacier Country Tourism launched its “Destination Stewardship Strategy,” a long-term collaborative partnership between the region’s tourism and community sectors, aimed at addressing overcrowding and visitor impacts on residents’ lifestyles.

“Resident sentiment is really important to us,” Glacier Country Tourism President Racene Friede said. “Frankly it’s one of the reasons we’re taking a shift in the direction we go with our marketing. We can’t solely do destination marketing or destination management, we need to find a balance. Hopefully resident sentiment will continue to increase as we find that balance.”

Friede agreed with Weddell’s characterization that some communities have a greater appetite for tourism in their region than others. During community listening sessions held each year, Friede said staff routinely hear that Glacier County residents want more tourism and more business in their communities, compared to nearby Flathead County residents who often want to see a decrease in visitors.

Glacier Country Tourism staff are in the middle of a round of community engagement meetings open to the public. Meetings will be held in Columbia Falls on May 8, Cut Bank on May 9 and St. Regis on May 30.

“It’s an ongoing conversation, but it helps us be a lot more creative and a lot more thoughtful in our work and how it involves each individual community we work with. The community engagement on a hyper-local level is so crucial,” Friede said. “Ultimately, we don’t want our communities to change. We live here too, we want community pride, and when people are grumpy or aren’t welcoming, that affects residents and visitors alike.”

The 2023 ITRR study shows that, while statewide attitudes about tourism benefits are slowly increasing in positivity, the number of Montanans who see economic benefits to their communities from tourism promotion is at its lowest level, according to the report. Across the state, nearly 75% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with that statement, the first time the survey has recorded a response below 80%.

Overcrowded Attitudes

According to the latest survey, the number of Montanans who believe that the state overall is becoming overcrowded with tourists continues to decline, with 41% agreeing, the lowest number since pre-pandemic surveys. Similarly, statewide respondents who feel their local community is becoming overcrowded with tourists also dropped from last year, with just 46% agreeing.

In Glacier Country, attitudes are more negative, with 68% of residents agreeing that their community, specifically in the summer tourism season, is overcrowded, and 51% saying the state overall is overcrowded.

Researchers specifically point out that Glacier Country and Yellowstone Country, the two travel regions anchored by their eponymous national parks, routinely indicate higher levels of community level crowding than the rest of the state.

Crowds at Under the Big Sky music festival in Whitefish on July 16, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Tourism and Quality of Life

The survey also asked whether residents believe that increased tourism will increase quality of life for Montana residents. Thirty-nine percent of respondents disagreed and just 33% agreed, showing a widening gap in perception, and tracking with another recent poll that indicated Montanans feel a decreasing quality of life. The remaining 27% neither agreed nor disagreed. The study notes that during much of the survey’s history between 1992 and 2022, most Montanans agreed that quality of life would improve with increased tourism. That began shifting in 2019, after which the number of Montanans believing a tourism increase would improve residential quality of life has dropped 40%.

Again, Glacier Country respondents led the negative sentiment, with 45% disagreeing with the quality-of-life question, compared to just 26% in agreement. The negative attitude was seven points higher than the next closest regions, and the 19-point margin was nearly four times higher than Yellowstone Country, which also had a negative attitude.

Interestingly, Glacier Country residents who have lived in their community for less than a year expressed the most negative sentiment toward tourists. More than half of recent transplants said increased tourism would decrease quality of life, while a third said negative impacts of tourism outweighed the benefits — the average response across demographics was just 14%. Just 63 of the 1,767 respondents in Glacier Country had lived in their communities for less than a year, however, so the smaller sample size could give outsized weight to some answers.

The ITRR report notes that even more than half of all respondents thought their community was equipped with the necessary amenities to support tourism, a 17% increase from last year, which may indicate better preparation among communities to manage the increased volume of visitors seen in recent years.

The Quarterly Montana Resident Study is based on a survey of 4,869 Montanans from 54 counties conducted in the fall of 2023. Flathead County and the Glacier Country travel region represented the highest proportion of residents surveyed during the fourth quarter, at 1,789. Explore the interactive data here.

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