MISSOULA — A year after the COVID-19 pandemic created panic for Montana's tourism industry, there's anticipation for what could be a record-breaking season.
While Americans' desire to get outdoors and erasing long lockdown memories could make for a busy summer, visitors are also being asked to recreate responsibly in Big Sky Country.
A year ago, Montana's multi-billion dollar tourism industry was on the rocks. It didn't last.
“Starting in June, we really started to see strong recovery in terms of visitation for the leisure visitor and that has only continued to grow and prosper," said Glacier Country Tourism President and CEO Racene Friede. "In fact, I was just looking the other day and travel spending right now is only down about 6% compared to 2019 in Montana in February was down 19%, so we are still making a very strong recovery very quickly.”
A recovery based on people's desire to get back outdoors, whether they're from out-of-state, or Montanans. Yet, they may find that favorite hotel, restaurant or outfitters gone, a victim of the business upheaval. However, the ones left may offer deals, and new features.
“What we have found is that businesses have gotten pretty resilient and they've been very creative about how to keep their operations open. Even going into a summer where we know we're going to have some workforce shortages and there's some challenges with rental cars and things like that. But people are being really creative about how they're going to keep their doors open.”
Last year, Glacier Country, and the state's message, was to "wait" for re-opening. Friede says that's changed in the new travel guide, and other marketing materials.
“We have actually shifted marketing more from ‘yes come to Montana’ to more of a once you're here, recreate responsibly, know before you go. Plan ahead, leave no trace, just helping them help us be good stewards of Montana.”
One point causing some confusion is the ticketing system for Going-to-the-Sun Road implemented by the Park Service. Friede says they're working to explain the rolling, 60-day window for tickets, and reminding locals not to forget the freedom of early morning, and coming later.
“You only need the tickets between 6:00 and 5:00 o'clock during the day. You can come early. You can come late and you only need them for the entrances that give you access to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. So if you're wanting to go to Many Glacier or go through Polebridge, those gates are wide open and you can go anytime.”