BILLINGS - University of Montana research suggesting that Montanans have little understanding of tourism's importance to the state didn't come as a big surprise to Travel Montana Director Matthew Cohn.

"I'm more perplexed than concerned," the state's top tourism official said Monday. "This is a big industry with a big impact. But it doesn't seem to register in public policy or public perception. People don't seem to pay any attention to it."

Cohn was reacting to the recent release of results of the 2000 Resident Attitude Survey by UM's Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. In summarizing a portion of the survey dealing with Montana residents' knowledge of the industry, UM's Thale Dillon referred to the results as "disappointing at best."

The first question on the survey asked "How well do you feel you have been informed about the travel industry in Montana?" Thirty-seven percent responded that they felt only somewhat informed, and 32 percent said they were less than somewhat informed. Thirty-one percent answered that they were more than somewhat informed.

When asked separate questions specifically relating to their knowledge of how other aspects of tourism affect the state, residents also reported a general lack of information. Survey results showed that 74 percent of Montanans believed they had been exposed to "some" to "no" information on tourism's economic effects; 78 percent received "some" to "no" information on environmental effects ; and 72 percent reported "some" to "no" information on quality-of-life effects.

Only 5 percent to 8 percent surveyed reported having a lot of information on any of those areas.

"Montana residents do not see the connection between the travel industry and the general public, a fact which is one of the main obstacles to tourism development in the state," Dillon wrote. "People do not see the economic benefits and may be reluctant to support it."

She maintains that the most alarming aspect of the survey is that "while Montana residents are generally uninformed about the travel industry's impact in the state, they do not hesitate in forming opinions about it."

Montanans tend to view the travel industry as providing low wages and only seasonal or part-time work, Dillon wrote. But the industry average is $8.47 an hour, well above minimum wage, she said, and tourism often provides jobs for Montanans just entering the workforce.

Cohn said tourism is directly responsible for 30,000 jobs in Montana and indirectly supports thousands more.

Dillon argues that it is the responsibility of tourism developers and the travel industry to bring more information to the public.

Cohn agreed and suggested that lodging tax revenues could be useful for in-state promotion.

"We've always used our bed-tax dollars to bring nonresident visitors to Montana," Cohn said. "This would be a change in philosophy of how we spend our money. We need to take a look at that."

Tale of a tax

Montana's first serious steps in promoting itself as a tourist destination began in 1988, when the state began collecting its 4 percent lodging tax. Most of the proceeds from the tax were earmarked for marketing Montana and its six tourism regions to potential visitors from out of state. The strategy seemed to have worked well. In 1988, the state collected $5 million in bed taxes. By 2000, it had more than doubled to $10.9 million.

The travel industry itself should strengthen its role in increasing public awareness, said Amy Sullivan of the Montana Tourism Coalition.

"We could probably do a better job of self-promotion," she said.

She called the survey results disappointing, but said "tourism is still a fairly new contributor at this level to Montana's economy. It takes time."

The economic effects of tourism aren't as easy to spot as with other industries, such as agriculture, she said. When an out-of-state visitor is shopping his heart out at the mall, he probably doesn' t stand out from among the local customers, she said.

Last year, 9.4 million out-of-state visitors - roughly nine times the state's population - crossed over Montana borders. While here, they spent $1.6 billion.

Many Montanans don't make the connection between their expanding local tax base and the new hotels, restaurants and retail businesses that tourism has made possible, Sullivan said. They sometimes don't see that it' s the extra business that tourists provide that keeps their favorite eateries and specialty stores afloat in the off season, she said.

Cohn said tourism has added airline flights to Montana cities, most notably Bozeman and Billings. Good air service is one of the things that other businesses look for when trying to find a place to set up shop. Bozeman is a particularly good example, he said.

"A town that size with that kind of air service is unheard of," according to Cohn. "It's being driven by that Big Sky-Yellowstone Park economic corridor."

He said general public apathy toward tourism could be self-limiting.

"If you don't see the potential, then you don't think about it when land-use planning or other issues where tourism could be affected come up," he said.

Although tourism ranks among Montana's major economic bases, it still doesn't seem to get the attention of other economic sectors, Cohn maintains. Legislators have dealt with it on a piecemeal basis rather than with a long-term strategy, he said.

Sullivan and Cohn agree that the 2001 Legislature seemed to have a better understanding of the importance of tourism than previous sessions. There were fewer attacks on the bed tax and more recognition of the income the industry generates.

But Sullivan would like to see Montanans and policymakers take a closer look at how tourism developed in Montana, and possibly use it as an example for other industry. Since 1987, when the bed tax was passed and Montana began promoting itself, the industry has boomed, she said. It's a success story that shouldn't be overlooked.

Cohn believes that the industry will get its due, but not overnight.

"I think it's an evolving thing in terms of changing people's perceptions," he said. "I'm not surprised by the (survey) numbers now, but if we have these same numbers in 20 years, then we've really got a problem."

Lorna Thackeray is a reporter for the Billings Gazette.

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