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Missoula tourism

Besides Missoula’s obvious natural recreation appeal, Destination Missoula executive director Barb Neilan said tourists come for many other reasons, including "our amazing arts and culture community.”


Tourists spent $280 million in Missoula County last year – $258 million of that within city limits – and that money benefited more businesses than those frequented by visitors, the executive director of Destination Missoula said Wednesday.

Locally, the spending supported 3,200 jobs and contributed $22 million to taxes, said Barb Neilan, who is also executive director of the Tourism Business Improvement District.

Neilan was the featured speaker at the Missoula Businesswomen’s Network general meeting Wednesday at the DoubleTree Hotel. Before a crowd of more than 100, she discussed the importance of the tourism industry to all businesses in the city and state.

“I want to talk about the power of travel,” she said, explaining her office’s role in promoting tourism. “Why does what I do make a difference to a CPA or an attorney or the local hardware store? Well, the money we bring into the community trickles down to everybody in one way or another. And the more successful we are in bringing new money into this community, the more money goes into your pockets. And it goes there either directly or it goes there through expenditures to people who are directly related to tourism who then spend money at your businesses. It’s a very powerful industry, but people look at it a little bit like it’s fluffy, and it truly isn’t when you start to look into it.”

Neilan explained that nonresident travel and tourism comprise the second largest industry in the state of Montana, behind only agriculture.

“And the truth is if you took subsidies away from agriculture, we would be the largest industry in the state,” she added. “So it’s hugely important to our state. It’s a clean industry, and something we can be really proud of.”

Neilan said that 82 percent of new visitors return within the first two years, and most continue to come back on a regular basis.

“If you look at the statistics, we have 11 million people each year visit Montana,” she said. “Three point one million people actually come to Missoula each year, and 1.1 million stay at least one night in Missoula each year. We need to do a better job at capturing that other 1.5 million, but those are pretty phenomenal numbers. Without tourism, every single Montana household would be paying $549 more in local and state taxes than they do right now.”


Tourists spend $3.6 billion statewide every year, which supports 34,000 Montana jobs and contributes $236 million in state and local taxes.

“It’s a huge economic driver for our community,” Neilan said. “Seventy-four cents of every dollar is spent supporting our retail businesses, everything from hotels and restaurants to hardware, grocery and clothing stores.”

Neilan said that the hotel industry carries more than its share of the burden for supporting the tourism industry.

“Our industry really is paid for by the hotel industry in many ways,” she explained. “One of our funding sources for what we do is the bed tax, which is a tax on occupied rooms. Part of that money comes back to our community, which then supports us, to be able to do our jobs. And so you would think that the hotels would be the biggest benefactor to the money coming in. And if you look at it, they aren’t.”

The biggest expenditures for tourists are gas, retail and restaurants, in that order. Hotels come in at fourth on the list.

“And yet, really it’s only the hotels that are contributing, that are helping to sustain the industry, so kind of an interesting anomaly,” Neilan said.

Neilan also admitted that not many people are aware of what Destination Missoula does because most of its work is done outside the community to attract people from places like Idaho, Chicago and Atlanta to come to Montana.

In the past 10 years, the organization has grown from a single employee with a budget of $130,000 to having five full-time employees with a $900,000 annual budget. The office has also been working hard to attract foreign tourists, especially from the Canadian and Chinese markets. Neilan said that Chinese tourists have an enormous amount of spending power.

Besides Missoula’s obvious natural recreation appeal, Neilan said, tourists come for many other reasons as well.

“What I believe we have that I don’t think other cities across the state do is our amazing arts and culture community and the depth of talent in this town,” she said. “It’s really a surprise to people.”

Destination Missoula has submitted bid packages on hosting 15 new events next year, including the Tour of Montana, a professional cycling race and festival for men and women. There will be a four-day celebration of cycling in Missoula on July 16-19 next year, which will be a boon to the local economy.

“It has been sanctioned by the Women’s Cycling Association because it is the first professional bike race that is equal between men and women,” Neilan explained. “Men and women will be riding the same course with the same purses. That’s a huge thing in the biking community and has never happened before.”

For more information on the Missoula Businesswomen’s Network visit

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