WHITEFISH — An unexpected greeting was scheduled for a passenger flying into Glacier Park International Airport on Saturday afternoon.
Following a record-breaking summer, the airport’s management and Kalispell Chamber of Commerce turned out to honor its 247,446th visitor — the highest number the airport has ever seen.
This has been a year of records for tourism in northwest Montana.
Nearly 113,000 passengers came through the airport between June and September. That marked a 13.9 percent increase over last year and the busiest summer on record.
Many of those visitors were probably pointed toward Glacier National Park, which set its own monthly record when 1 million people visited the park in July alone. Despite a fire that shut down part of a popular portion of the park toward the end of the summer, a record 3.3 million people had visited the park through the end of September. That was nearly 13 percent more over the same nine-month period in 2016.
It’s not only the summer months that are setting records.
Following last year’s ski season, Whitefish Mountain Resort reported it had set a record with more 346,000 skier visits. It also set a single-day record when 8,601 skiers took to the slopes on Dec. 30.
After being selected as one of the Top 10 destination resorts by readers of Ski Magazine, the resort hopes that upward trend continues after it officially opens Thursday, Dec. 7.
As part of a $2.6 million investment in upgrading infrastructure this past summer, the resort relocated Chair 5 from the Ptarmigan Bowl to the East Rim to help spread the large numbers of skiers over a bigger area. That move gives the resort its first lift on the east side of the mountain and will offer skiers better access to both intermediate and advanced terrain.
Whitefish Mountain Resort’s public relations manager Riley Polumbus said the chair will open up some terrain that will be good for both early- and late-season skiing, which will be good news for season pass-holders.
Local skiers make up more than half the skiing population at the resort. Last year, season pass-holders set their own record when they skied over 2 billion vertical feet.
“We set a record last year when we sold more season passes than ever before,” Polumbus said. “And we’re ahead of where we were last year.”
While the resort is popular for local skiers, Polumbus said the number of people coming from outside the area continues to grow.
“We’re attracting people from all over Montana, as well as Alberta, Washington, Oregon, and California,” she said. “Some additional flights that have been added over the past couple years from Chicago and last year from the San Francisco Bay Area have created another avenue for people to get here. We already have regular flights from Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake and Minneapolis, plus we have the train. There are definitely people coming from out of town.”
Glacier Park International Airport director Rob Ratkowski said the airport is definitely seeing consistent growth in the numbers of people using the airport during the shoulder season that includes fall, winter and spring.
“We’re seeing anywhere from 4.5 to 7 percent growth during the late winter and spring,” Ratkowski said. “Those are really good numbers. The summer here basically sells itself. It’s good we’re also seeing this growth during the rest of the year.”
Traffic through the airport has set records five years in a row leading up to this year.
“I think you can attribute that to the economy rebounding across the country,” Ratkowski said. “I think the shoulder season traffic that we’re seeing here includes a lot of local travelers. When you take out that huge summer season, the baseline economic activity that we see shows that Flathead County is growing and it’s not just a flash in the pan. The economic base is coming back into the area.
“The local Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau is doing a good job in getting the word out that this area offers a lot to visitors throughout the year,” he said.
That organization’s executive director, Dylan Boyle, said the goal is to create a tourism economy that’s spread out throughout the year. About 60 percent of its budget is spent on promoting wintertime activities in and around Whitefish.
“We want people to come here and spend their money throughout the year,” Boyle said. “We don’t want to be a seasonal town that’s shut down during the rest of the year.”
Boyle heads up a local group that has worked with United Airlines to guarantee revenues for flights into Glacier International from Chicago and, last year, San Francisco. While the latter didn’t work out, United Airlines has seen enough growth from the Chicago area to add daily direct flights from Dec. 20 to Jan. 7 this year.
That’s over and above the weekly flights already offered by the carrier.
“That shows us that United has confidence in our market,” Boyle said. “They aren’t requiring a daily guaranteed revenue. They are doing that on their own, which shows a measure of success to us. That’s how you gain momentum.”
There have been challenges along the way that come with any community dependent on the whims of nature.
This past summer’s late-season fire in Glacier National Park did affect local businesses during the months of August and September.
“We began to see cancellations this fall after the west side of the park was temporarily closed due to the Sprague fire,” he said. “In the last few years, we’ve seen our largest growth in September and October, but the fire impacted that this year.”
Boyle sees potential in the expansion of the Whitefish Trail system in creating an additional draw to the community for people looking for opportunities to mountain bike, cross-country ski, and a host of non-motorized activities.
“If the weather pattern holds, this winter there will be some nice Nordic skiing opportunities on the trail,” he said. “That could become another nice offering we have for the shoulder season. … Not everyone who comes here in the winter will want to ski or snowboard. We want to be able to offer visitors a change to go outside and have a great experience and then come back and have another great experience in town.”