MISSOULA — While Montana's tourism industry had its worst year in five years in 2020, travelers' desire for the wide-open spaces is helping to lead to a strong recovery.
The news was dire a year ago, as COVID-19 lockdowns slashed tourist reservations indicating Montana would be a very lonely place during the travel season. But as we know now, the pent-up demand to recreate while still being "socially distanced" played in our favor. And while tourism was down 12%, other states fared far worse.
"We did fare better than most states did by and large," explained Jeremy Sage, Interim Director for the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. "We look at what we did, and yeah, we were down double-digit percentage points. But that was in the teens instead of in the fifties like states like California are. Where they rely more on international travel, on airline travel and more reliant on kind of that, urban destination."
Sage notes tourism spending was soft too, down 16%. Still, better than expected. "We could go in and say we have a percentage loss in the teens, or both visitor numbers and visitor spending. And that's not bad. Any other year that would be like an atrocious outcome."
Sage noted that's largely because of how Montana business adapted, from hotels to restaurants. "But Montanans adjusted. Visitors adjusted. Getting food for takeout. Definitely, a large opportunity to go and get groceries from grocery stores or those kinds of places as well."
Now, all the indications are for a very strong '21 season, from the lines already showing up at Glacier and Yellowstone, to bookings and reservations.
"The fishing outfitters and guides, they're having to turn people away right now because they are so booked up," Sage said. "And so those opportunities for at least outdoor recreation opportunities, people are eager to do that. We have a lot of pent up demand that's out there ready to go."
That's also good for tax revenue. In the tourism area known as Glacier Country, lodging tax revenue was down 1% but this year so far it's up 52% -- marking a dramatic shift.
"So those are big numbers. That's not just in that piece of the state either. It's spreading into Yellowstone Country, and a few of the other areas that are the big outdoor rec areas for the state."
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had more significant numbers on Tuesday, reporting more than a 25% jump in visits, led by Giant Springs at Great Falls, and the units of Flathead Lake State Park.