Up to 9.4 million expected to visit state

HELENA - Threats of wildfires, increased gas prices and an economic slowdown all could discourage visitors from coming to Montana this summer, but tourism specialists say they are still hopeful the state's second-largest industry will come out on top.

Overall, officials estimate Montana should see steady to small growth in its tourism this summer season, which begins near the end of May and spans through October. Last year, some 9.37 million people visited the state, a 0.6 percent drop from 1999.

Matthew Cohn, director of Travel Montana, said while he's optimistic, it still is unclear whether visitors will be deterred from traveling here. He said it's too soon to tell if the state will see the rash of wildfires it saw last year, a jump in gas prices to record high levels or a continued economic slump.

"We're cautiously optimistic that it will be OK," said Cohn.

"If you take all those caveats, stir it up and spit it out, as long as we don't have a major catastrophe and gas is available, we imagine this year will be similar to last," he said. "We're not going to break records, but there's still a lot of positives out there."

Montana experienced it's highest level of visitation in 1999 with 9.4 million visitors. Last year's number was down slightly, but wasn't nearly as poor as feared by some after fires swept through Montana, Cohn said. He predicts 9.3 million to 9.4 million people will visit the state this year.

And while there won't be large increases in tourists this summer, Cohn said, airline and hotel bookings look favorable and big visitor draws - including Glacier and Yellowstone national parks - should remain winners. Other attractions expected to lure tourists are sites along the Lewis and Clark Trail and celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Susan Pirrie, owner and operator of the Western Outdoor store in Kalispell, is keeping her fingers crossed for large numbers of visitors this year and betting serious wildfires won't erupt. Much of her store's business depends on tourists, she said.

"We have real concerns about that, but we're expecting a great summer," she said. "We're expecting it to be a real boomer. Please, I got lots of stuff I need to sell."

Amy Sullivan, executive director of the Montana Tourism Coalition, said her members also are looking forward to a successful season.

"A lot of people who stayed away last summer and are hoping to make good on their reservations this summer," she said. "We're here to say we're open for business."

One area that didn't experience the drop in tourism last year because of the fires was Helena hotels, where many firefighters and support people found lodging, said Betsy Baumgart, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express. At the same time, she said, visitation to nearby attractions such as the Gates of the Rockies was down.

"I think we're still hoping for some growth," said Baumgart, chairwoman of the state Tourism Advisory Council. "We've had steady growth over the years, and we're hoping for conservative growth this year. We're hoping with the rain we won't have to deal with the fires again."

Stuart Doggett, executive director of the Montana Innkeepers Association, said his members have been working hard over the last year through advertising to invite visitors back and make up for the lull during last year's fire season.

He said his group, which accounts for 70 percent of Montana's hotel and motel rooms, believes it's too early to really know what to expect this year, although bookings appear to be up so far.

"It's a little bit of wait and see," he said. "We're still hoping there's going to be a growth in tourism visitors."

Although hopeful, some are still worried about what the summer will hold, including Joe Wilson, owner and operator of the Sundowner Motel in Forsyth. Although early bookings are up, Wilson fears that with gas prices on the rise and the looming energy crisis, travelers will have less money in their pockets to spend.

"I'm nervous," he said. "It's a little bit of a crap shoot."

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