MISSOULA — When the phone calls began to slow at the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce back in February, concerns over a potentially soft tourism season began to grow.
That was before the COVID-19 virus turned into a global pandemic.
Since then, international travel into the U.S. has ended, the northern border with Canada has closed, and flights into Missoula have arrived with fewer passengers.
Local bars and restaurants have been forced to close, as have theaters. The state’s ski areas have stopped running their lifts at the height of the season, and the Apgar Visitor Center in Glacier National Park is no longer open.
“We’re definitely feeling it in substantial ways,” Racene Friede, president and CEO of Glacier Country Tourism, said on Thursday. “We’re the second largest industry in the state of Montana, and when it comes to a screeching halt like this, there isn’t a single community or business that isn’t going to feel this to some extent.”
While it’s not yet known what impacts the virus will have on tourism in Montana, experts believe it will be significant. National figures released this week by the U.S. Travel Association estimate a total economic loss of $809 billion, including $55 billion in federal, state and local taxes.
The figures also suggest that unemployment within the industry will reach 6.3%, with job losses spiking in April and May. Total employment losses could amount to more than $4.9 million, according to the industry.
Montana will share the pain, said Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana. How deeply isn’t yet understood.
“It’s going to be huge,” she said Thursday. “Our businesses in the tourism field are small in Montana. That type of business does not have the ability of being able to survive any length of time without laying off people or closing their doors.”
A survey conducted by the institute a week before Montana reported its first case of COVID-19 found concerns mounting within the state’s tourism industry.
At the time, roughly 36% of travel business owners in Montana reported cancellations due to the virus while 50% of hotels had seen cancellations. Recent estimates suggest that the travel sector as a whole could shrink 25% as a result of the pandemic.
“They’re saying it will be more than six times the impact of 9-11,” said Nickerson. “They’re saying at the national level, it’s going to be a 6.3% unemployment rate that will result from travel related job losses alone. You add in all the other job losses and the talk is a 10% to 15% unemployment rate here real soon.”
Of those who responded to the survey, 70 percent felt the virus and its impact on tourism would reduce their revenues in 2020. Nickerson believes the figures will be much higher in a second survey planned next week since the virus has now spread nationwide.
“Right now, everyone is trying to catch their breath,” she said. “We’re going to be doing this study again in a week so we can follow what’s happening to the businesses and the travelers. We’ll kind of have a before and after picture.”
Glacier Country Tourism is no longer promoting the spring travel season as it normally would have but instead, it has shifted its focus to helping related businesses while planning for changes once the pandemic clears.
“We’re actually behind the scenes reevaluating and preparing for once this does open back up to travel, what we can do to help our communities,” said Friede. “We’re going to be one of the first industries that are going to be able to kick start the rest of our economy. We know that and are laying the groundwork right now.”
Friede believes Montana is well-poised to attract visitors looking to get out once the pandemic winds down. The state’s open spaces and natural amenities could play to its advantage in attracting visitors leery of crowds and confined spaces.
“So much of that is going to be so critical, and a drive market is going to be really critical for us,” Friede said. “The first modes of travel are going to be people traveling by car, so we’re retooling things and looking at a really aggressive drive market campaign and letting people know that our natural attributes are going to be something people are wanting to experience after all of this.”