Crowded tranquility

Hikers stand in the full parking lot at Logan Pass, marking where they left their vehicle before hitting the trail. With Glacier National Park's skyrocketing popularity, and most visitors wanting a trip to the top of the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road and the visitor's center there, park officials are seeking solutions to the overcrowding.

Montana isn’t attracting more tourists than years past, but the ones who do come are taking more money out of their wallets while they’re here.

A report published this week by economists at the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research found that nonresident travelers spent $3.58 billion in the state in 2018, a 10.4% increase from 2017.

“We see this as a big plus for Montana since our numbers indicate that visitation was relatively flat in 2018, but spending was up,” said institute director Norma Nickerson.

For the state’s resident taxpayers, flat visitation means no increased pressure on traffic congestion, road maintenance or other headaches associated with more people coming here. But when spending goes up in such a significant amount, hotels, restaurants, guides and gas stations reap the benefits, as do the state’s coffers that collect taxes.

“Visitors don’t tell us why they are spending more, but when the economy is doing well, travelers have more discretionary money to spend in Montana,” Nickerson said. “We are also seeing more spending on experiences such as guided trips rather than items to take home. Experiences tend to cost more.”

The institute has previously estimated about 12.4 million visitors came to Montana in 2018, down 1% from 2017. The institute also previously estimated that visitors spent more than $3.7 billion here last year, but has since refined its data to $3.58 billion.

Glacier National Park is a big draw for tourists, as is Yellowstone National Park, which lies mostly in Wyoming but has entrances in Montana. Visitors to those two parks spend money all over the state, Nickerson said, but especially in so-called gateway communities nearby.

Last year, the Yellowstone region experienced a 20% increase in nonresident spending, while the Glacier region saw a 12% increase in nonresident spending. The areas around Glacier in northwest Montana received more than $1.21 billion in spending by nonresident travelers, which is 34% of all spending in the state. That spending supported a total of $1.53 billion in economic activity and almost 20,900 jobs, according to Nickerson.

“Nonresidents bring in new money to Montana that helps the overall economy,” Nickerson said. “While it is beneficial for the entire state, we have to recognize that Glacier and Yellowstone national parks are a big draw for visitors. Without those iconic parks bringing recognition to Montana, our economy would not be bolstered nearly as much.”

Gallatin County received more than $814 million in nonresident spending, followed by Flathead County ($614 million), Missoula County ($307 million) and Yellowstone County ($270 million). Nickerson said this spending "contributes to jobs and other economic activity at the local county level, as well as rippling throughout the state."

While gas and diesel fuel are by far the largest expenditures by nonresidents at $812 million, restaurants and bars got $674 million and hotels got $454 million. Outfitters and guides got $396 million and retailers got $323 million. Travelers spent $82 million on products that were labeled “Made in Montana,” and farmers markets got $5 million worth of out-of-state money.

In Missoula County, the institute estimates that nonresident spending supports nearly $221 million in economic activity, including 3,580 jobs and $70 million in worker compensation.

Brendan Bannigan, the owner of the Grizzly Hackle fly-fishing guide shop in downtown Missoula, said he’s not surprised to hear more travelers want “experiences” rather than goods.

“We’re definitely seeing more and more people who are walking in, traffic coming off the street, in town for a couple of days who have never fly-fished and are wondering what the opportunities are,” he said. “Last year was a really good year for us. We had a really, really strong June, July and August, and June is strong so far this year. We’re hoping to see the numbers carry through.”

Bannigan recently converted the apartments upstairs from the shop on Front Street into Airbnb rentals for guests who want to go fly-fishing.

“Instead of pushing clients to a hotel, we thought of creating this idea of an urban lodge,” he said. “Clients always tell us how much they love the fishery here but also how much they love downtown Missoula. This lets everyone stay downtown so they can enjoy the bars and restaurants.”

Nonresident spending in Montana fluctuates fairly significantly. In 2017, the institute estimated the annual spending was $3.36 billion. In 2016, it was $3.04 billion, and in 2015 it was $3.23 billion. In 2014, visitor spending set a record at $3.98 billion.

To view the full report visit https://scholarworks.umt.edu/itrr_pubs/391/.

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