MISSOULA – While Montana is bracing for another fire season, some businesses in the tourism industry are still trying to recover from last year, when a million acres burned and smoke chased away an estimated 800,000 visitors.
Decades ago, tourists would come to Montana often not knowing about the extent of the summer fires. But in the "Information Age", news of our peril spreads quickly.
"We have so much information at our hands, whether it’s on the Internet or on TV or in the newspapers, news of fires across the West was all over nightly news all summer long," said Jeremy Sage, an economist for UM’s Institute for Tourism and Recreational Research. "Whether it was in Montana, you saw sometimes in the summer Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were just socked in. It looked like a big fog bank but it was smoke coming down from B.C. Oregon was crushed with fires. So this was news all summer long."
The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana estimates our tourism industry took a $250 million hit last summer because of the big fires and all that smoke, especially in Western Montana. Yet, not every visitor was dissuaded by the fires. Many traveled here before, or after the fire season, as evidenced by the record crowds at Glacier National Park. Others found fire-free spots to visit. In fact, overall tourism spending was still up last year by 11 percent.
"Some were canceling their future trips for the rest of the summer. Others just decided not to come and others were also shortening their trips. Fortunately we did have a good number of people, and probably the largest group, that were changing plans, changing plans to be elsewhere in Montana. So while it might have been bad for Seeley Lake, areas around the Yellowstone area that weren’t smoky benefited from that change."
Tonight, we’ll go on Special Assignment to explore how the state is already using more resilient marketing tools that can adapt to big fire seasons, and how the Commerce Department has improved business assistance programs based on what Montana learned in 2017.