Montana saw a small dip in visitors in 2018 but a sizable uptick in spending, according to a new report.
The Institute for Tourism and Economic Research at the University of Montana recently released preliminary numbers from its annual survey of nonresident travelers and how much they spend in Montana.
The report found that in 2018, about 12.2 million nonresidents came to Montana and spent nearly $3.7 billion. That visitor number is down about 2 percent from 2017, but spending by travelers was up about 10 percent.
“It’s a substantial jump,” Norma Nickerson, institute director said of the spending increase.
The survey began in 2009 providing statewide visitation and economic impact estimates. Using 10 surveyors, nonresidents are questioned at airports, gas stations and rest areas and also asked to complete a submitted survey at the end of their stay.
Questions include residency, expenditures and why they visited.
The economic impact of the spending translates to an estimated 58,000 direct and indirect jobs. Those jobs pay more than $1.1 billion supported by nonresident spending and an additional $622 million of labor income is indirectly reported by nonresident spending, according to the report.
Nickerson identified two factors driving last year’s spending bump: the price of fuel and tourists hiring more guides and outfitters.
“They’re looking for experiences and that has meant the outfitter-guide went up in dollars,” Nickerson said. While the price of gas steadily increased throughout the year, it did not reach levels that negatively impact tourism, she added.
“We didn’t have that type of reaction that we had in '08 or '09,” she said of high gas prices limiting tourism. “We did a quick study (then) and found that the cutoff point to traveling is when gas is $4 (per gallon).”
Nickerson believes the dip in visitors is largely tied to dips in visitation to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Yellowstone, visited by 54 percent, and Glacier, visited by 43 percent, are by far the top destinations for tourists.
“Parks in general tend to go up and down, they’re not a nice trend line that overall increases,” she said, “and Yellowstone and Glacier are a big input.”
Major fires in Glacier last year cut the peak season short and Nickerson suspects an influx of visitors to both parks in previous years because of the centennial of the National Park Service lends 2018 to a down year.
While most visitors drive to Montana, air travel has sought to keep up with demand, Nickerson said, pointing to increases in flights and seats at several airports in the state.
Dax Schieffer, director of Voices of Montana Tourism, believes Montana’s 2017 fire season likely impacted the drop in 2018 visitation, but the less smoky 2018 contributed to the spending uptick.
“One might think 2017 would bring less visitors than 2018 based on fire and air conditions, but many non-resident visitors still visited that summer,” he said. “In 2017 visitors shortened their stays and participated in less activities, which lessens the positive economic impacts, ITRR identified nearly $240 million in unseen spending based on fire conditions in 2017. In 2018 more people were getting outside and spending money on recreation and the report measured higher economic impact.”
The “residual effects” from one season to the next work both ways, Schleffer noted, providing the example of a destination ski area with a great snow year seeing lasting enthusiasm and visitation to the next season.
Schleffer also sees marketing as a key component to the spending bump, which not only injects money into the economy directly and jobs, but means more tax revenue. Fewer visitors spending more money as a result of “targeted marketing” is promising from a business perspective, he added.
“Destination marketing strives for this result as long as visitation maintains adequate numbers,” he said. “Any business would want lower volume, higher economic impact and Montana is on the front edge of identifying spenders with disposable income and exposing them to advertisements that create awareness for the Montana brand.”
The news was also welcomed by the Office of Tourism and Business Development at the Department of Commerce.
“The latest data from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research is great news,” Jenny Pelej, division administrator, said in an email. “A sustainable amount of visitors spending more money is the strategic goal of Montana's tourism marketing, and the very reason why our office has invested in market research to make sure we're attracting the highest-value visitors possible.”