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Tourism, a leading industry in Montana, does not grow by accident. Over time, as Montana’s economy has diversified to support a growing visitor economy, several critical milestones were first achieved. In 1987, Montana implemented a 4% lodging tax with proceeds statutorily directed to marketing promotion at the state, regional and local level along with supporting tourism assets such as Montana State Parks and the Historical Society.

In 2003 an additional 3% bed sales tax was created to support general fund operations for Montana. This spring, another milestone was met when the legislature passed SB 338 to increase the 3% tax to 4%. The funds generated from this additional 1% will be used to establish a grants program to enhance rural museums and historic sites across the state as well as providing funds to invest in Montana’s Heritage Center Museum in the Capital City. In turn, after five years when the Heritage Center renovation is complete, funds will further support important areas such as marketing promotion at the state, regional and local level and Montana State Parks.

According to the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research, in 2018 12.2 million non-resident visitors spent $3.7 billion in Montana. Those dollars then circulate through main street businesses and support wages for nearly 60,000 jobs.

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Research shows that many travelers are shifting behaviors to focus more on experiences and connections to place vs. material goods in retail. The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines cultural heritage tourism as traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.

Many states have taken advantage of the upward traveler trends in heritage tourism as visitors tend to stay longer and spend more money per day. Montana is rich in history with a wide range of stories from dinosaurs, tribal experiences to gold rushes and Copper Kings. These stories can be enhanced by the Montana Historical Society and its member communities across the state with this additional support.

Not only are there significant economic benefits from this segment of the visitor economy, but heritage tourism also strengthens engagement and can be a differentiating factor unique to Montana and not available with other vacations. The heritage traveler enjoys learning new things which they then will value and will want to care for it. Generally speaking, when travelers connect to an area, they are also more apt to speak positively of the experience to friends and family generating future visitors.

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Dax Schleffer is the director of Voices of Montana Tourism.

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