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The passing of Labor Day marks an end to the summer travel season in Montana, and preliminary figures released this week suggest that it was another banner year for the state’s tourism industry.

Survey results from the University of Montana’s Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research show a 6 percent year-over-year increase in the number of nonresident travelers visiting the state in the first two quarters of 2012, and hotel occupancy in Montana – perhaps the most effective measuring stick of a tourist season’s robustness – outperformed the national average in both June and July. In July alone, Montana topped all 50 states with 84 percent hotel room occupancy.

“We’re waiting for August results and we still have four months left in 2012, but we’re optimistic that Montana will see a third consecutive year of tourism growth by the end of December,” said Stuart Doggett, executive director of the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association. “This is meaningful because out-of-state travelers give a big boost to our economy, and the dollars that travelers spend here allow Montana businesses to retain and create more jobs.”

Tourism remains one of Montana’s leading industries, and in recent years it has joined a short list of economic niches in the state to show rapid growth, said Mary Paoli, spokeswoman for Montana Voices of Tourism. Last year, 10.5 million out-of-state travelers spent $2.8 billion in Montana, and year-to-date figures indicate that these numbers will be higher in 2012 if current trends continue.

Through July, hotel occupancy is up 3 percent and room revenue is up nearly 10 percent compared to 2011, according to reports from Smith Travel Research. The high demand for Montana hotel rooms also bumped up average daily room rates by nearly 8 percent in June and more than 4 percent in July compared to the previous year, according to the data.

The Montana Department of Transportation reported the number of airport passengers increased 7 percent in June and 8 percent in July, though an ITRR survey shows that 65 percent of nonresident visitors chose to drive.

In addition to contributing to Montana’s economy and job market, nonresident travel benefits the state’s general fund with the 3 percent lodging facility sales tax on Montana accommodations. Travelers also add to Montana’s tax base by paying excise taxes on gasoline, alcohol and other goods, and by supporting businesses and workers who pay corporate, income and property taxes, Doggett said.

“We benefited from steady gas prices, a national uptick in travel and warm weather early in the season,” Doggett said. “Paired together with Montana’s strong tourism marketing, it seems like everything came together to create a successful summer.”

The successful marketing campaign aims to draw travelers to the region by capitalizing on Montana’s natural resources, and identifying the characteristics of the state with its iconic places, like Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.

National Park Service numbers for June and July combined show that recreation visits increased by 12 percent at Glacier National Park – due in large part to an earlier opening of the Going-to-the-Sun Road – and more than 1 percent at Yellowstone National Park compared to the same period last year.

Year-to-date recreation visits are up 14 percent at Glacier and more than 4 percent at Yellowstone as of July, according to National Park Service data.

According to the ITRR survey, Montana’s scenery, wildlife and outdoor recreation accounts for the majority of the activities that non-resident visitors seek out.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 541-9745 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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