MISSOULA — This is usually an optimistic time for Montana's tourism industry, as lodges, hotels and outfitters begin booking for the months ahead but the COVID-19 pandemic is creating panic in an industry which brought $3.7 billion to the state's economy last year.
The troubling trends come from the latest survey by the University of Montana's Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.
"We could see from early March the concern about individuals' health was hovering around 60%," said Jeremy Sage, a researcher for the UM Institute for Tourism and Recreation. "By the end of March that was about 85%."
As COVID-19 was spreading across the country in late March, businesses in the survey said future bookings began to drop up.
Some 63% reported zero bookings for April, 61% had zero booking for May, nearly half (49%) had none for June. And 21% said they had zero bookings for July and beyond.
Other data show that 66% of tourism-related businesses have temporarily reduced their workforce, and 57% have temporarily closed some or part of their business. Additonally, 3% say they've already closed for good.
"Right now we're seeing cancellation from these visitors and what they're talking about is, up through May largely," said Sage. "And that tapers off a bit through June as folks are waiting to see what happens out there. But a lot of them are saying they're wavering right now on those June-July trips."
"And our parks are huge," said UM Institute for Tourism Director Normal Nickerson. "If Yellowstone and Glacier were to stay closed, I don't know. That's a scary, scary thought."
And the fear isn't just lost traffic, but lost businesses throughout the sector. A deep downturn may ripple across the industry, wiping out everything from guides to gas stations, especially in smaller towns.
"It's what that hotel, that lodge, gives you access to," said Sage. "It's all the various amenities."
Yet, one number offers a glimmer of hope.
"The number of zero bookings reduced," said Nickerson. "In other words, it was getting better in the minds of the business people that July and August have some hope. There's hope out there for them because the door hasn't slammed shut yet."