Tourists head to Montana, scenic state parks amid travel boom

July 9, 2022

Montana Economy

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The tourist season in Montana has started with a bang.

Flooding in Yellowstone National Park and nearby communities. Avalanches and a not-yet-fully-open Going-to-the-Sun road in Glacier National Park.

Inflation, of course, plus high fuel prices.

“It’s one shot after another, isn’t it?” Barbara Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Daily Montanan.

Still, visitors are heading to the Big Sky, and at least for now, economic security is generally strong, said Patrick Barkey, head of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Some people might forgo a restaurant meal, for example, in order to keep a trip to Yellowstone on the schedule.

“Consumers have pretty high savings rates, so they have money to deal with some of these higher costs,” Barkey said.

“The damage is catastrophic”:Towns near Yellowstone fear impact of lost tourist season

In 2020, Montana’s state parks saw record attendance, with 3.4 million people, a tally that fell just 1.3% the following year, according to data from Montana Fish, Wildlife. and Parks. In the summer of 2020, the great outdoors felt relatively safe for many people as the coronavirus spread, but tourism this year could slow down a hair’s breadth; the first quarter shows an 8.6% decline in state parks compared to last year, although it is still up from 2019 and 2020.

“I don’t think it’s going to be quite the tear-jerking, roaring year than last year,” Barkey said of tourism in general.

At Makoshika State Park, the state’s largest, park superintendent Riley Bell said it’s still very busy, and while he doesn’t have official numbers yet, he would assume that the numbers so far have either reached about the same level as last year or are down slightly. . Last year, he said Makoshika had a record number of visits, around 150,000 for the calendar year.

This year he sees many foreigners, especially from Minnesota, as well as from California, Washington and Idaho. The landscape and fossils of the park’s badlands attract people from all over the world, and it sees many more tourists from Germany, Sweden and other European countries since COVID-19 blocked the first international flights.

“We’re starting to see a lot more international travellers,” Bell said.

Barkey agreed that the gradual reopening of international travel, which had been dormant, was going to hurt Montana’s economy. On the one hand, he said, it means Montanans can finally make their own trips to Europe, but it also gives foreigners a chance to get here, and he said demand for air flights is always “strong enough”.

“By the way, economically, these international (visitors) are spending more money,” Barkey said.

On the other hand, he said for individual communities, such as Red Lodge and Gardiner, the economic hit is serious this summer, although he said people who have Yellowstone National Park on their to-do list will find a way to get there.

Sherry Weamer, executive director of the Red Lodge area chamber of commerce, said the community again needs through traffic to Yellowstone, but in the meantime, Red Lodge itself is bustling. The July 4 weekend brought a record rodeo, she said, and a Beartooth motorcycle rally will run July 14-17, as will a car show July 22-23.

“Downtown is vibrant and bustling, and everyone is open,” Weamer said. “We just need those visitors to come back and hang out with us and enjoy our mountains five minutes from the outskirts of town.”

She said the city reopened quickly after the historic floods in June and the support of the governor and the president would be helpful. Still, she said she can’t wait for U.S. Highway 212 between Red Lodge and Cooke City to open, though she said travelers can take the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway for a nice drive.

“The flooding and closure will have a major impact on us,” Weamer said. “There is no way to overlook the attraction of Yellowstone National Park, and all this flood coverage has spread across the country. Now it is almost impossible to let people know that we are again open, so that’s another challenge.

In an email, Yellowstone noted that visitor numbers dropped in June because the park closed immediately after the flooding. But the park said a “modified reopening” was underway.

“Numbers will also be affected because only three of the five entrances are open,” the park said.

In western Montana, Neilan said occupancy was up 7% in Missoula in May of this year compared to last year, but June was down about 4%. %. She said it was also an interesting year for tourism in Montana.

“Montana as a whole has somehow been discovered”

On the one hand, the tourism industry is watching to see how much recent spikes in Montana can be attributed to the “COVID bubble,” she said. But Neilan said she believes some of the change is permanent.

“I think Montana as a whole has sort of been uncovered,” Neilan said.

In Missoula, events such as concerts and the Missoula Marathon are returning, and occupancy is around 80%, she said. Some Montana residents are finally flying to New York and San Francisco for vacations, but with inflation, she said others are staying closer to home for “holidays,” and Canadians are also returning to the Montana.

“I think there’s so much pent-up travel that people want to do that it’s not going to stop travel,” Neilan said. “I think what it’s going to do is maybe just change it up a bit.”

Go on the Road of the Sun

In Glacier, the Going-to-the-Sun road won’t open until July 13 at the earliest, said Gina Kerzman, the park’s public affairs manager. It’s later than usual, but visitor numbers so far show some admissions are still up from last year, and the popular West Glacier admission is down, but not a lot.

“Our headline numbers that we just released make it look like we’re starting the season strong,” Kerzman said. “We are on track for another busy year.”

She said Glacier never plans an opening date because the weather was unpredictable, but the plows crossed the Big Drift, and on Tuesday they started digging the gap and digging into the Logan Visitor Center. pass. Glacier saw record attendance in the fall of 2020.

“You get people, you have to have bathrooms. There’s just no getting around it,” Kerzman said.

She said visitors don’t need reservations for the St. Mary entrance on the east side of the park until Going-to-the-Sun Road is fully open. This means that by marking an opening date as close to July 13 as possible, people are assured that if they arrive on July 12, they can still hit the road without a ticket.

Kerzman also said Glacier experienced flooding. Although not as far as Yellowstone has seen it, it does mean hikers should check trail conditions on the park’s website and be prepared to make alternate plans if necessary, or crawl over debris. if a trail is open but messy.

“Some of the trails are badly damaged, so you can walk in mud,” Kerzman said, noting that it’s better to walk a muddy trail than to walk on the side of a path and damage vegetation.

Generally speaking, Barkey said inflation lowers purchasing power and will impact tourism in Montana. However, he said it remains to be seen whether negative forces will push people to stay put or if other factors will drive them away from their homes to gamble.

“It remains to be seen whether they will win,” Barkey said of the constraints on portfolios.

The Daily Montanan is a Helena-based nonprofit media outlet covering statewide politics and politics. It is affiliated with States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers.